Four Legs, Two Homes? What Happens to a Beloved Pet in a Michigan Divorce
For an animal lover, the thought of giving up or sharing a beloved pet in a divorce can be excruciating and difficult. For many of us, our canine, feline, and other animal companions are more than just pets – they are part of our families, more akin to children than property. But under Michigan law, pets are not treated like children. They are considered personal property and subject to division under equitable distribution principles. Of course, it’s impossible to equally divide an animal like you would furniture, bank accounts, or record collections. So how do you handle “dividing” your pet in the divorce process? There are several issues to consider.
Marital or Personal Property?
A pet’s status as property under the law means that unless its “parents” can agree to the hows, whos, and whens of the pet’s future, a judge will ultimately decide its fate under similar principles of equitable distribution that apply to the division of assets in a Michigan divorce.
Two fundamental aspects of equitable distribution are important to understand in the context of a pet. First, “equitable” is not the same as “equal.” Instead, Michigan judges consider many factors in determining how to distribute a couple’s assets fairly and equitably, which means that a pet’s fate is considered together with how other marital assets are to be divided and distributed.
Second, not all property is subject to equitable distribution. Under Michigan law, property and assets are placed into two distinct categories: “marital property” and “separate property.” Marital property consists of all assets acquired during their marriage regardless of the party who acquired the asset. Separate property is generally those assets each spouse owned prior to the marriage. If one spouse brought a pet into the marriage, that spouse would likely claim possession of that pet at the time the parties choose to divorce. But a pet acquired during the marriage would still be subject to equitable distribution if the parties cannot agree on how to handle this sensitive and important issue.
Check Your Pet’s Papers
If your animal is purebred, it probably has paperwork from the American Kennel Club or Cat Fanciers’ Association. Look at these documents to determine if they list you, your spouse, or both as owners. If you can establish that you’re the animal’s primary owner and main caretaker, the court may rule that you should keep it. You can also use veterinarian records, vaccination reports, and grooming receipts to prove that you’re the animal’s primary owner.
Considered Shared Custody
Most people think of minor children when they hear the term “parenting plan,” but a divorcing couple can also apply these same principles in the event of a divorce when dealing with the custody of a pet. Although creating a shared custody agreement for a dog or a cat may seem strange, animal lovers understand that pets are sometimes incredibly connected to their owners. If you’ve struggled with a rocky marriage for a long time, your pet may have brought you tremendous and needed comfort during emotionally difficult times. If you and your spouse cannot agree on the animal’s principal residence post-marriage, consider creating a parenting schedule that allows both parties to spend time with the pet.
If a shared custody agreement is possible and the parties’ goal, make sure to include essential details about which spouse will bear the costs and responsibilities of maintaining the pet, such as veterinarian visits, surgeries, insurance, food, grooming, and even end-of-life decisions. It is important to note that if you have more than one pet at issue, the parties will need to make arrangements for each pet. Each pet is considered separately.
Although you love your pet, be sensitive to acknowledge your ex-spouse’s relationship with the pet. When courts address parenting and custody issues about children, the court makes decisions based on the best interests of the child or children. The same principles apply to the family pet(s). If your dog or cat has a closer relationship with one parent over the other, please consider this factor, applying the principle of what is in the best interest of the “pet.”
If you have any questions regarding the treatment of pets in a Michigan divorce, please contact Stewart Weiner at Maddin Hauser.