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Pets in Wisconsin Divorce: Why it may be time to rethink the "property" definition and move to a "custody" evaluation

Pets in Wisconsin Divorce: Why it may be time to rethink the "property" definition and move to a "custody" evaluation

A relationship with a family pet can be important to every member of the household. Animal companions are part of daily life in the home and often share a unique bond with their owners. When a couple with pets is going through a divorce, questions related to their ownership often arise. Although owners may think of their pets as family members, in Wisconsin, during divorce, household animals are treated the same as any other material possession. However, treating an animal companion as a mere possession fails to consider the importance of the owner/pet relationship and bond.  Here is why it may be time to rethink the “property” definition and move to a “custody” evaluation when it comes to pets:

 

The Owner/Pet Relationship

 

Wisconsin law treats pets as marital property during divorce. As such, a cherished family pet is something to be awarded to one party or the other. Unlike with minor children, the court will not order a pet placement schedule or decide custody. This approach ignores the nature of the owner/pet relationship. In reality, pets are more than mere possessions—they are considered valued members of the family. Owners often view their relationships with their pets as being more parental than possessory. Both parties may feel equally connected to their pet, and assigning ownership to one over the other fails to take the owner’s respective connections with the animal into consideration.

 

Evaluating Pet Custody Instead of Ownership

 

In 2007, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to propose a pet custody statute. Although the legislation did not pass, the state has enacted multiple laws to protect animals, including one statute prohibiting cat or dog napping. Alaska, California, and Illinois have enacted pet custody laws. Recently, both houses of the New York State Legislature passed legislation that would require the state’s family courts to consider the best interests of pets when awarding possession during divorce and legal separation.

Although Wisconsin law does not provide for pet custody evaluations as it does with minor children, doing so may be a more logical approach. A court will evaluate several factors when deciding custody (decision-making authority) and physical placement (visitation) for minor children. The court's assessment is designed to help determine what is in the best interest of the child. By looking at factors such as the parental relationship, how medical and child care will be managed, and how parents propose to resolve disagreements, the court can decide how custody and placement will best serve the child. When a court evaluates child custody, it can also consider expert reports and testimony regarding a child's well-being.

Although the calculus of factors and information may differ from child custody when applied to pets, the two areas share some commonalities. For instance, as with parents and kids, caregiver cooperation, spending quality time together, and making care decisions are also essential elements of the owner/pet relationship. Additionally, pets often have expensive medical and personal care costs. Deciding custody could include apportioning responsibility for vet and boarding bills. Pets also have practitioners who could provide reports and information that may assist the court in determining what is best for the pet going forward.

A pet is not a mere inanimate object. Further, pets and owners can share a special and meaningful bond. Given the nature of the owner/pet relationship, allowing Wisconsin courts to award sole or joint ownership of a pet may be a more logical approach. Using a legal standard that permits courts to consider the owner’s respective connections with their pet and what is in the animal’s best interest honors the owner/pet relationship and may provide for more appropriate and equitable results.

Attorney and Mediator Karyn Youso of First Look Family Law understands the complexities of divorce and the importance of the owner/pet relationship during divorce. She is an attorney and Mediator with over 29 years of experience helping clients understand their options and connect with resources before, during, and after their Wisconsin divorce cases.  Contact us today and let us take a “first look” at your situation.