Every divorce has its challenges, but one area that can quickly become contentious is assigning ownership of pets, particularly pets that have been acquired during the marriage. In the state of Colorado, as in many other jurisdictions, pets are considered to be property and are therefore not subject to custody discussions in the same way as children are.
This means that if you are seeking to divorce your spouse, your lawyer and, in some cases, the court will help you make appropriate plans for the future care, habitation, visitation and financial arrangements that will be in the best interest of any children of the marriage but not pets.
Pets are property
Colorado is an equitable distribution state. This means that during divorce proceedings, a court will divide marital property in a manner that is deemed to be fair to both parties . A pet cannot be divided, so the court would need to determine which spouse is or will be its true legal owner.
In some cases where evidence exists to prove that a pet was acquired as nonmarital property, this determination is reasonably simple. However, if a pet has been acquired during the course of a marriage and treated as a family member by both parties, ownership post-divorce must be assumed by one individual.
If one spouse wants to keep the pet and the other doesn’t, there is no need to prove ownership. In this case, the pet will simply be assigned to the spouse who wants to keep it.
However, if both parties wish to keep the pet, they will need to accumulate evidence  to demonstrate that they own the animal outright or that they are better placed than their partner to take care of it.
Ownership can be proven by demonstrating that the animal was owned by one individual prior to the marriage. This can be achieved by presenting a purchase invoice that is in their name only, proof that funds were used to purchase the animal from their personal bank account, veterinary certificates proving that the animal’s age is greater than the duration of the marriage, photographs of the individual and the animal together prior to the marriage, or through witness testimonies.
An individual can also prove ownership if they can demonstrate that they have provided all or the majority of the animal’s care and paid for its veterinary and feeding bills while their partner has not contributed in the same manner.
Pet custody and visitation
In some instances, a judge may rule that the family pet should remain with whichever party is assigned primary custody of the children so that disruption is minimized. This is particularly likely if any of the children have a close bond with the animal in question and it can be proven that separating them from the animal is not in their best interest.
In this case, the animal may become part of the children’s custody arrangements, with the divorcing couple being required to share custody and visitation of the animal in the same manner as their children. This determination can further extend to sharing the costs of the pet’s care.
The animal’s best interests
Although they may be considered property, all legal practitioners in Denver recognize that animals are sentient beings and will make every effort to consider their best interests when reaching a determination regarding their future care.
They will consider the living arrangements that are proposed for the animal and the manner in which its well-being will be ensured when determining which spouse should be granted ownership.
Preventing issues from arising
The best way to prevent a pet custody issue from arising is to include your animal in a prenuptial agreement prior to marriage. This separates the animal from any potential future disputes and provides ownership clarity.
If an animal is acquired during a marriage but is to be owned by only one individual, they should ensure that all documentation is in their name only and that they assume full responsibility for the animal’s care.
To avoid pet custody battles, both parties should aim to reach an amicable agreement that is in the animal’s best interests. In some cases, it may be necessary to seek mediation to help a couple reach an acceptable position without the need for legal intervention.
Assigning ownership of a family pet is a challenge in many divorces. If a decision cannot be reached by the separating couple regarding which party should assume sole ownership of the animal, they can quickly become embroiled in a complicated legal battle. At Lewis & Matthews, P.C., our experienced team of family law attorneys will work with you to navigate the complexities of pet ownership and help you reach an acceptable outcome.