What Happens To The Family Pet in A Massachusetts Divorce?

You’re ecstatic that you’re getting rid of your spouse! But you want the pet. And you’re afraid that if you split up, you may have to say goodbye to it. How is that handled in MA divorce—who gets to keep the family pet?

As cold as it seems, pets are actually treated as property in MA, which affects how they’re handled in divorce.

In MA divorce, everything either party owns is considered “property” for purposes of division—including pets. In deciding how to divide property, judges consider a number of factors, including the parties’ incomes, their assets, ability to acquire future assets, contributions to the marriage, age, health, and a number of other factors.

Ideally, the parties can agree on what to do with the pet. If so, that can be incorporated into a divorce agreement and the issue is resolved.

The parties can agree on which party keeps the pet and how costs will be split. Usually, the party that keeps the pet is responsible for all associated costs going forward.

However, if the parties cannot agree on the issue, a judge will decide it.

But there are limits to what a judge will order.

As mentioned above, pets are treated as “property” in divorce, not like children. Therefore, a judge will award it to either one party or the other. But the judge will not order a shared care-taking plan.

Nonetheless, in deciding who gets the pet, there are some considerations that may come into play. The obvious one is if one person doesn’t have a suitable housing arrangement for the pet or mistreated it, the other party will likely be allowed to keep it. Also, if one party owned the pet before the marriage, was the primary caretaker of the pet during the marriage, received it as a gift, or is the registered owner of the pet, that person may have an advantage on the issue.

Is splitting time with the pet even possible?

There is a push nationwide for judges to more carefully consider what’s in the pets’ best interest. And in some cases, that may be allowing both parties to continue to play a role in the pet’s life.

Although MA still treats pets as “property” and will therefore either award the pet to one party or the other, the court may accept an agreement by which the parties share time with the pet and associated costs. You can put such a schedule into your divorce agreement and the judge may accept it.

The difference between a care-taking plan for children and one for pets is that for children, the arrangement is always modifiable. If parents agree to a certain schedule for their children and there’s a significant change in circumstances, either party can move to modify the schedule. Not so with pets. The parties’ agreement on that issue is final and binding.

Society is gradually treating pets more and more like the family members they are. And it’s difficult to say goodbye to a pet. However, in divorce, unless the parties agree otherwise, one of the parties most likely has to do that.

Absent agreement, the best way to try to gain the upper hand on this issue is to try to take possession of the pet upon separation. If you’ve had the pet since breakup, that increases the likelihood that the judge will allow you to keep it. Be cordial with your spouse. But on this issue, be aggressive and try to take possession of the pet. Because in MA, pets are property. And on issues of property, possession is nine tenths of the law.

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