Arizona pet custody attorney
Helping people in Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, Gilbert, Mesa, and throughout Arizona with pet custody matters
If you consider your dog, cat, or other animal to be more than a pet or companion animal, you’re not alone. About 95 percent of U.S. pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family, according to a recent Harris poll.
It’s not surprising that when Arizona couples divorce or separate, one of the most contentious, emotional issues to be resolved is often who keeps the family pet(s). If you and your partner are contemplating a break-up, legal separation or divorce, you would be wise to consult with an Arizona pet custody attorney who is passionate about animal welfare and highly experienced in the legal aspects of pet custody.
The legal status of a pet
Pet ownership is quite common. Nearly two-thirds of all Americans have at least one pet in their household. In Maricopa County, Arizona, over half a million households own one or more dogs. Nearly that many own at least one cat, based on statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Believe it or not, Phoenix, Arizona, is the city with the highest per-capita pet spending in the United States: $33.38 per month on average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
If pets are so important to people, you might expect that they would be considered important in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, pet custody is an emerging area in which the law has yet to catch up with changes in society. Under Arizona law, your beloved family pet has no more legal significance than a toaster. In other words, it is considered to be personal property. In a divorce or legal separation, most judges, by default, will consider your dog, cat, or other animal to be just another piece of property to be divided between the parties.
Fortunately, there has been a growing push within the legal community to recognize pets as having intrinsic value as living, breathing beings—that is, to treat them as falling somewhere between personal property and human beings.
Although not yet written into Arizona law, this effort is beginning to show results. National family-law expert Gary Skoloff writes: “Judges consider pet custody a legitimate issue. Many of the same arguments pertaining to child custody fit and no judge laughs at this.”
How pets compare to children from a legal perspective
Although the law still considers pets to be personal property, there are some legal similarities between pets and children in family law cases. Both have similar needs and involve similar rights and duties. Neither a minor child nor a pet is fully capable of taking care of itself. Both are highly vulnerable and require the “care, custody, and control” of one or more adult humans to survive and thrive into adulthood.
Promoting the “best interests” of children and pets requires many of the same things:
- Touch, nurture, and emotional support
- Bathing, grooming, and “potty training”
- Shelter and protection from the elements
- Safety, including safe transport (car seats or safety belts)
- Medical care, such as birthing assistance, vaccinations, and treatment of any illnesses or injuries
Also, legal issues such as legal decision making, physical custody, visitation, and support are similar between pets and children.
Likely outcomes of Arizona pet custody disputes
In Arizona family court, pet custody determinations are usually much less formal than those involving child custody. Unless the parties agree independently on a joint “pet parenting plan” and draft their own language to control every detail of the arrangement, a family court judge is likely to designate one person as owner of the pet(s). The language ordering sole ownership may be one sentence or less. This is easy and practical for courts because they do not risk being involved in continuing legal battles over pets for up to two decades, as often happens with child custody disputes.
If there are an equal number of pets, the division is much easier. For example, a couple with two dogs and two cats might agree, or a judge might order, that one partner keep the dogs and the other one keep the cats.
But rarely do pet custody matters work out this neatly. Sadly, as with children, pets often become “pawns” in divorce proceedings. If one party raises a fuss over which partner or ex-partner gets which pet(s), the court may look to factors such as who provided the majority of the pet’s care; bought the food, treats, toys, and bedding; fed and watered the pet; or took the pet to the veterinarian. Sometimes it can be a close call or hard to prove, so it is always helpful to have receipts, witnesses, or other evidence of ownership.
If the parties agree to shared custody of one or more pets, visitation schedules may be put in place. Typically, they are less detailed than with children because some factors that go into determining child custody, such as school schedules or extracurricular activities, rarely apply. Nevertheless, it is critical that you ask your pet custody attorney how to put yourself in the best position to keep ownership or at least partial custody of your pet(s).