It’s no secret that American society has evolved over the years. Many people now consider a pet as another member of the family. However, the law has been slow to catch up to this reality. More and more cases around “animal rights” and legal issues around animals are becoming common. Remarkably, one of the areas of law where animals are often discussed in detail and considered greatly is in a divorce case.

What happens to a pet following divorce in Virginia is mostly a point of contention among couples. While child custody disputes in Virginia will be decided on the child’s best interests, there is no parallel standard for a family pet. Therefore it is important to talk to a family law attorney to let you know where your state stands and how to increase your chances of getting the pet that you love.

What Does Virginia Law Say About Pet Custody?

While many residents in the Old Dominion state view beloved pet companions as essential family members, Virginia’s law does not. Virginia legally treats pets as any other property and they will be treated as such when it comes to property distribution.

A pet is identified as either marital or separate property. If one party brought the pet into the marriage, it is considered separate property and will remain with this spouse after divorce. However, if the pet was acquired during the marriage, it is considered marital property and is subject to the guidelines of division of marital property.

New Pet Custody Laws

Alaska, California, and Illinois are changing how some courts look at pet custody cases. These states will consider the wellbeing of a pet before determining who should be awarded custody.

In some instances, joint custody has been issued. These measures, at the very least, help differentiate your pet from other non-living items following your divorce.

How Will A Virginia Court Decide on Pet Custody?

Treating a pet as property may sound horrific to many pet owners. However, this does not mean that the courts in Virginia will not consider crucial factors.

Most family courts don’t wish to get involved in who keeps the family pet. They prefer the divorcing spouses to agree on their own. However, this is not always possible, as disputes involving pets are often argumentative and emotional. If the two parties can’t agree, the court may try to assign the pet as a purely financial asset, or possibly consider these factors to award custody:

  • Who the pet prefers
  • Who is at home more often
  • Who takes care of the pet daily
  • Who brings the pet to the vet or groomer
  • Whether a spouse has a history of abusing or neglecting the pet
  • When the pet was obtained, and who made the actual purchase
  • If children are involved, where the children will be staying and whether it’s in their best interests to live with the pet
  • Which spouse will have adequate living space after divorce

Generally, each spouse must prove these two things if either wishes to keep the pet:

  1. You were the primary caretaker of the pet during the marriage
  2. You can take care of the pet even after divorce

Equitable Distribution of Property in Virginia>

Virginia is an equitable property distribution state, which means the marital property will be divided fairly while considering all other factors. The court will, therefore, consider the value of the pet in the overall property division. 

The court may consider factors such as each spouse’s age, tax consequences for each, the ability to earn an income, duration of the marriage, and financial and non-economic contributions to the family.

How Can I Increase My Chances to Pet Custody?

Sadly, if the pet is considered separate property, there may not be much you can do during a divorce in Virginia. If you want to keep the pet, your best chance would be to bargain for it in exchange for other items in the marital property.

However, if the pet was acquired during the marriage, there are a few things you can do. The first and vital step would be gathering documentation including any adoption papers, bill of sale, veterinary bills, and any record that has your name on it. Receipts for pet toys, food, etc. on your account can also show evidence of being the primary caretaker. 

Other things that can count as proof include:

  • Witness accounts and testimonies from family, friends, and neighbors proving you’re the primary caretaker
  • If the pet’s name tag has your cell phone number
  • Copies of cat or dog licenses containing your signature

Are There Alternative Solutions?

Divorcing couples can choose to enter into a property settlement agreement rather than allowing the court to decide for them. This agreement can include how much time each spouse spends with the pet. A Roanoke Property Division Lawyer can help you work out an acceptable plan that considers your pet’s wellbeing. 

These alternating custody schedules are becoming popular–with the pet spending part of the time with each spouse. Often, if there are children, the pet can follow the same schedule followed by the ex-couples’ kids as they alternate between homes.

Get a Property Division Lawyer to Help You

Divorce cases involving pets are usually not about the financial value of a pet. Rather, such cases are about emotion, which often leads to disputes becoming divisive, bitter, and extremely time-consuming. 

Even the most agreeable divorces can turn bitter when it comes to the beloved pets. That’s why you need a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney in Roanoke to help you.

The Roanoke Property Division Lawyers at the Law Office of Seth C. Weston, PLC can help you negotiate for the custody of your pet as well as help you divide the rest of your marital property fairly. Call us today at (540) 342-5608 if you are in Southwest Virginia, Roanoke, Salem, and surrounding areas.