After a divorce or break-up, what happens to the pet?

When couples split, the question of who gets the family's beloved pet can be every bit as difficult to resolve as the matter of child custody. The issue may stir a great deal of emotion, especially when the pet is a "child substitute," said Shirl...

When couples split, the question of who gets the family's beloved pet can be every bit as difficult to resolve as the matter of child custody.

The issue may stir a great deal of emotion, especially when the pet is a "child substitute," said Shirley Jahnke, a Grand Forks attorney who specializes in family law.

But in the eyes of the law, pets are no different from dishes or lawn furniture.

Judges can make a determination based on factors such as who originally acquired the animal or who will provide the more stable home, but most in this area decline to rule at all.

"Judges have very little patience when it comes to custody of pets," said Carol Johnson, an attorney who practices family law at the Zimney Foster law firm in Grand Forks.


"They will say, 'You need to work this out.'"

However, some judges may be pet-lovers and would consider making that decision, but not usually, she said.

"For the most part, judges here don't like to address that triviality."

Dividing assets

It may be different if the animal is very valuable, such as a show-horse or a dog bred for competition, she said. "In such cases, the value of the animal would be included in an analysis for dividing the estate."

In North Dakota, an "equitable division state," the couple's assets are tallied up and a fair split is determined by the judge.

A mediation program in North Dakota could be useful in helping couples resolve an impasse, "or people can end up hiring mediators," said Johnson who provides mediation services as part of her law practice.

For such couples, especially those who are child-less, "pets are their family, in fact," she said. "Mediators may be more patient" than judges tend to be.


"It's purely an emotional issue, not a monetary one."

Dog visitation

As an example, Johnson said, "I once had a case where I actually worked up a visitation schedule for a couple that had two dogs."

The issue of deciding custody of a pet "is not unheard of, but not uncommon, especially where children are involved," she said.

Because kids can develop a strong attachment to pets, those animals may be left with the parent who ends up with primary custody of the children. Or in those instances where the favored pets are farm animals, "kids may interact with them when they visit the parent on the farm," she said.

Overall, in the case of divorce, "the issues are quite a bit bigger than who gets Tabby."

Jahnke has "had a few cases in which the animals have been definitely at issue," she said. "Most of the time, the parties are able to resolve that issue."

Oftentimes, they are able to put what's best for the animal at the forefront -- sometimes more so than they can for their children.


Clearly, some animals are cherished, and losing contact is unthinkable to their owners.

Jahnke had a recent divorce case in which the soon-to-be ex-husband wanted visitation rights with the family pet written into the settlement.

"They also had a daughter, but the dog was right up there with the visitation rights, interestingly enough," she said. "And I'm an animal-lover, so I don't treat it lightly.

"He wanted to make sure -- very sure -- that he had visitation for the dog."

Much depends on whether the pet should stay with the house, she said, as in cases where one of the parties moves into an apartment where pets are prohibited.

"There is no statute that addresses the issue under the North Dakota Century Code that I know of," she said.

"I've never seen (the issue) make or break a case," Jahnke said. "They really do talk it out. There's a stability factor involved for pets.

"The parties do consider that."


Pets as property

Brad Parrish, assistant dean of the UND Law School, said, "My experience is that the law would treat household animals and pets like property when it comes to considering 'custody.'"

But not "custody" in the same way that parents are awarded custody of children, he emphasized.

Most couples going through divorce usually come to agreement on their own about how to divide property and the judge approves it, said Parrish who practiced family law for nearly seven years before joining UND in April.

"I never had a case where the couple did not work this out between themselves."

Usually, a pet becomes attached to one person more than another, he said. "One of the parties may say, 'The dog is closer to you, so you can keep the dog and all dog-related items.'"

When the couple cannot agree on who gets Sparky, each person would submit a written statement for the judge to review.

Each would make the argument or provide evidence supporting why the animal should belong to him or her, he said. It's the same process used to settle disputes over division of any household item.


According to the law, certain factors must be considered, he said. "The judge could then make the decision and award the pet to one or the other."

Opportunity to inflict pain

"Divorce can be extremely painful and extremely hurtful. People react to stress in different ways. When they're sad or upset, they may act in inappropriate ways (such as) becoming aggressive and responding to the situation by fighting.

"People look for any area of disagreement to try and hurt the other person," he said. "Pet custody can be one of those areas."

What makes it contentious are "the emotional connections people make to a pet, and the high level of tension that surrounds most divorces," he said.

"I know how close people can get to pets -- they become like members of the family."

"But it doesn't have to be a pet. It could be a toaster they got as a wedding gift -- or any item of property -- that the other person wants.

"It's not so much 'I want this item,' but more 'I want it because I know you want it.'"


Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to .

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