Everyone that knows me knows I’m dog person. I have two lhasa apso dogs who are considered my little four-legged “children.” I treat them like children because I love them. You probably feel the same way if you have dogs. Dogs are our companions. Cats may be a little more aloof, but people still love and cherish them as pets. You may even have some fish, an iguana, or a family of gerbils.
Family pets are important to us because we build emotional connections with our pets.
So what happens to family pets in a divorce?
While it pains me to think of pets as property, Georgia divorce law treats pets as such and divides them as property in a divorce when the parties cannot come to an agreement.
Georgia law does not recognize custody rights or visitation rights when it concerns pets. When an agreement cannot be made between a divorcing couple, Georgia courts will decide which party will be awarded the pet. The losing party is not entitled to receive any rights, such as visitation, to the pet under Georgia divorce laws.
When pets are involved, divorcing couples need to decide whether it is worth the financial and emotional toll to fight over them. Often times the family pet is more attached to one person over the other, or one person is primarily responsible for taking care of the pet’s day to day needs. That person may be the best fit for the family pet after the divorce is finalized.
Since Georgia law treats pets as property, it’s probably best for divorcing couples to come to a joint agreement to control the outcome – if possible. Possible “custody” options for the parties to explore may include the following:
- Joint physical custody – similar to custody involving children, divorcing couples with pets can agree to split custody. This option is only advisable for couples that can still get along.
- Full physical custody – one party receives full physical custody of the pet. Each party must take into consideration their post-divorce living arrangements and the amount of time they are able to spend with the pet.
- Visitation – one party receives full physical custody with the other party receiving visitation rights. Visitation rights can be scheduled formally within the divorce decree, or can be scheduled informally outside of any court order as long as the parties can agree.
Note: Under Georgia law courts cannot award custody provisions related to pets, unless the parties have agreed to such. Parties must reach a joint agreement for any of the above custody arrangements to apply.
Children and Pets – A Divorce Attorney’s Recommendation
If you have children, the children will often want the family pet to stay with them. Meaning the children will want the family pet to be awarded to the parent that is also awarded primary physical custody of them. Children want to have as much time with the pet as possible.
Therefore, I always recommend keeping the pet with the parent that is awarded primary physical custody of the children or the parent that keeps the children the most. Children, especially at a young age, will usually grow very attached to the family pet. A divorce is difficult enough for children to cope with, but stripping the family pet away from a child can also be very traumatic for a child to go through.
Alternatively, parents may also want to consider exchanging the pet when exchanging the children. That way the children’s best friend will always be at their side.
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Ashley M. Brodie is a Macon, Georgia divorce attorney who practices family law throughout Georgia. While her practice is primarily focused on family law matters such as divorce and child custody, Ashley also handles a variety of criminal and personal injury work. She maintains offices in her hometown of Gray and in downtown Macon.