Who Gets the Pets in a Washington State Divorce?

Even though everyone understands that animals are beloved family members and not just property, animals still have no legal rights when it comes to divorce.

Believe it or not, every U.S. state still considers an animal property and not a family member. So pet issues in divorce are complicated. Why? Because we love our pets as if they are our children, but the law classifies them as property with value to be split between the divorcing parties. So there’s an inherent contradiction between how we feel about our pets and how the law treats them.

The good news is, the laws around animals are improving. We have anti-cruelty laws in place in many states, and pets can receive estate and trust benefits. Also, in cases of domestic violence where protection orders are put in place for (generally) wives and children, pets are also often protected from the abuser. These are all great strides in family law issues involving our furry loved ones.

However, when it comes to pet custody, not a single state has any laws on the books that govern custody. Pet custody and visitation arrangements are still only possible if the parties to a divorce can agree on the arrangement. In high-conflict divorces this is sometimes impossible, in which case parties fall back on the law which treats pets as property to be divided and “awarded” to one party. This can be very stressful for dedicated pet owners who are getting divorced. As long as animals are still legally classified as property, post-dissolution issues will be nearly impossible (modifying visitation, seeking financial support for the animal, etc.).

There is hope for pet owners. The law is evolving and cases around the country are coming before family courts in which the court is being asked to bestow special status on the animal – more than mere property. Many argue that a “best interest of the animal” standard be implemented, using the best interest of the child standard as a template. This means the court is being asked to rule on pet issues in a way that makes sure the pet (and not necessarily its owners) is well-cared for in a way that maintains the pet’s routines, schedules, time with family members, and other issues that, if ignored in a child, would result in unnecessary emotional trauma.

However, until “best interests of the pet” becomes codified by statute, divorcing “pet parents” will have to try and come to personal arrangements that serve their furry loves ones with dignity and respect.

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