Is Pet Custody a Thing in Michigan Divorce Law?

Your pets can be the most sentimental thing you own. Pet owners often become so emotionally invested in their cats or dogs that they treat them almost like children. But what about the courts? Is pet custody a thing you can ask for in a Michigan divorce?

You’ve spent thousands of dollars on your pets: food, litter, toys, furniture, vet bills, kennel fees, even dog park memberships. They are a part of your family and you can’t imagine living life without them.

Then your spouse moves out of the house and files a Complaint for Divorce. Suddenly, you are having to divide everything in your household: the furniture, the bank accounts, time with your kids. But what about your pets?

Pets are Property Under Michigan Law

No matter how sentimentally attached you are to your fluffy, feathered, or scaly companions, in the eyes of the law, they are all just “chattel.” That means they are considered personal property, no different from your car, camper, or laptop. In an average Michigan divorce, the parties will either agree which pet-parent will be “awarded” the pet, and the Judgment of Divorce will make that person the 100% legal owner of that pet. That means if a husband is awarded the dog, he has the right to say his ex-wife will never see the pet again, and can sell the dog, or put it down without even telling her.

Sometimes, that is an appropriate solution. Maybe one spouse always wanted a pet and the other simply tolerated it. Perhaps the cat or dog is so closely bonded to one spouse that neither can imagine separating the two. In other cases one pet-parent may have to travel for work or otherwise be unavailable to care for the creature. In the case of exotic pets, one spouse may be the only one who knows how to give the pet what it needs.

Pet Custody Agreements Give Pet-Parents Options

But sometimes both pet-parents are so emotionally attached to a cat or dog that they need a different solution. They want the pet to be treated more like a child, and less like a piece of property. In those cases, a pet custody agreement may be the solution to everyone’s needs.

This happened in one case I handled a few years back. It was a relatively straight-forward divorce. Each party expected to keep their own property, retirement assets, and bank accounts. But they couldn’t decide who would keep the dog. So we got creative.

Officially, we awarded the dog to both parties as “joint tenants with full rights of survivorship” — language that is usually reserved for co-owners of a house. Ultimately, that wording meant that if either party died the other would receive the dog, and neither party could sell the dog without the consent of the other.

Then we used child custody orders as a model to create a pet custody agreement that controlled who got to make decisions about the pet (including veterinary expenses and end-of-life choices. It described how each pet-parent would contribute to the costs of caring for the dog, and split the “pet parenting-time” between the two parties.

Courts Don’t Usually Order Pet Custody On Their Own

“Pet custody” isn’t officially a “thing” in Michigan divorce courts. If an issue of pet ownership goes to trial, most judges will hear testimony and then pick one or the other spouse to receive custody. But when the parties can reach an agreement, judges generally will not overturn it. If your pets are likely to play a key role in your divorce, you need a lawyer who is willing to create a solution to your pet custody problem.

Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She provides creative solutions to non-traditional families in Metro Detroit. If you are facing a divorce and need a pet custody arrangement, contact Schmidt & Long to schedule a consultation.