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Dogs and divorce

Dogs and Divorce (Part I)

Splitting up from your partner can be a hard transition, no matter what stage of the relationship you are in. Breaking up with a partner with whom you reside oftentimes requires dividing property that you purchased together. Children and pets can complicate the breakup, and if you married your live-in partner, the legal requirements of divorce can add another layer of difficulty. This blog discusses what a fight for your furry friend can look like, depending on the stage of your relationship.

The laws in Colorado regarding animals generally deal with animal cruelty. Colorado courts, and most others, currently consider animals personal property. So, deciding what to do with your dog (cat, horse, etc.) can look a lot like deciding what to do with the dining room set you bought together. If a settlement cannot be reached, it may come down to the decision of the judge in your case. Of course, there are other options.

You Bought a Dog While Living Together

Courts tend to handle the “division” of pets differently, depending on whether you are married or not, and whether you have children.

If you entered the beginning of the relationship with a dog you personally bought, you take the dog with you when the relationship ends. After all, it is your dog, because you bought it.

There can be an exception. If the other party starts paying for all things dog-related, like food, dog-walking, doggy day-care, and vet bills, they may end up with a claim for “unjust enrichment.” In that case, you may be able to negotiate paying the other person back for what they have contributed to your dog expenses. However, it could get complicated if your ex-partner has become so attached to your dog that they are willing to fight you for “custody”. Play it safe, keep things separate, and pay for the pet you are bringing into a relationship.

As with all things, issues become more complicated when there is not a black and white answer. If you and your ex- partner purchased the dog together and later split, things can get messy. In some cases, people just forfeit their dog to the other party. In other cases, people want to receive something of benefit, whether that is personal or financial, to give up the dog to their ex-partner. For many, forfeiting their furry friend is difficult to even imagine.

To try and eliminate this issue, partners who live together can enter into a cohabitation agreement that lays out what happens to your joint property when you split. This can include any pets that you share together. Cohabitation agreements can make things more straight forward at the time of a split. Cohabitation agreements are similar to a prenuptial agreement (prenup). However, people often do not think about the end of their relationship at the start. Unfortunately, the end of a relationship is when things get the most complicated. This is the time when arguments are usually fueled by the pain of the split, especially when hurtful behaviors lead to the break-up. These emotions, coupled with the risk of losing their “best buddy” may fuel the fire, if there is any room for argument during the break up.

It is important for pet parents to remember the time and money associated with caring for a dog by yourself. Parties should consider how they are going to handle buying dog food, feeding the dog, walking the dog, paying for a dog walker, taking the dog to the vet, the vet bill, and everything in between. It is important to include these considerations in any agreement you reach regarding “custody” of your dog. Arguments can arise if one party is solely responsible for the dog, financially or otherwise, while the other is just exercising “pawrenting time.”

If you bought a dog together during your relationship, it is obviously not divisible by two and most people are too attached to their pet to sell them and split the proceeds. Sans children, couples that are separating typically do not want or need to stay involved in one another’s lives. A custody arrangement for the dog may make sense for some but is often not a long-term solution. If you are trying to decide what to do with the dog that you purchased during a relationship, contact an attorney at GEM Family Law to discuss your options.

In our second installment of this three part series, we will discuss what happens with your pets in the event of a divorce.

Co-authored by: Adeline Sulentich, Associate Attorney, and Partner Meagan Moodie