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Pets and divorce

When most people think of divorce, they think about dividing up property and determining who should have the kids when. Yet, another large and emotional issue for many spouses going through divorce is often overlooked: What will happen to the family pets?

Pets are an important part of the American family. People are so emotionally tied to their dog or cat that they are willing to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees just to gain "custody" over the pet.

In Minnesota, there is not a specific statute / law that addresses pet custody. In the courtroom, pets are considered property. Instead of asking a court for "pet visitation" or "pet custody" (which don't exist legally), owners often use pets as bargaining tools during property division discussions. And if divorcing spouses are unable to come to an agreement, courts will treat pets exactly like property, sometimes even requiring a pet's sale.

What, then, can you do to ensure that your pet falls into the right hands (yours)? First, if the pet was yours before the marriage, it will likely be considered non-marital property that belongs to you.

If the pet was acquired after your marriage, it is important to stay cordial with your spouse and let him or her know why you would like to keep the pet and discuss what is in the pet's interests. You may want to come to an agreement similar to a visitation/child custody agreement where you and your spouse agree to share the pet. Other options include offering to compensate your spouse for the pet in order for you to keep it and allowing the pet to stay with the children.

The Minnesota Legislature has had bills before it to change the family code to list pets as more than property during a divorce, but those bills have not been considered. Until pet custody becomes a legal option in a Minnesota divorce, it is important to work with your family lawyer to find solutions that work for you.

Source: Kare 11, "The legal side of pet ownership," Sept. 17, 2012.

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