We are a pet-loving society. Americans owned 83.3 million dogs and 95.6 million cats in 2012, according to The Humane Society and the American Pet Products Association. Ohio and other pet owners nationwide paid $50 billion dollars for pet products the same year.
The investment isn't simply financial. People often have strong emotional ties to pets, which can be evident when married owners decide to part ways. Custody disputes over pets are not uncommon during separations and divorces.
A survey of members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found almost one in four attorneys had seen spikes in pet custody conflicts. The legal issues often extend beyond pet ownership to non-custodial owner visitations. Pet cases are heard in family courts, but decisions are not based on rules that apply to child custody, although there are similarities.
Despite what owners feel about their animals, laws categorize pets as property. At the end of a marriage, Fluffy is either listed as a separate or marital asset. Separate property belongs to one spouse and is indivisible, while marital property is divided by spousal agreement or court order, under Ohio's equitable distribution laws.
Arguments may occur over pets that are "commingled" assets, like when a pet purchased by one spouse before marriage later becomes cared for and loved by both spouses. Judges may see that spousal caretaking crossover as a reason to consider the pet a marital, rather than separate asset.
Former spouses may share "joint" physical pet custody. Agreements can be formalized to reflect visitation times and divvy up ownership financial responsibilities, like veterinary costs. Most pet custody cases are eventually resolved without a court's help, but sometimes deadlocked former couples seek a judge's intervention.
Attorneys are aware of the attachments many people have to their pets. Lawyers also know division of sentimental assets can be the hardest part of a divorce for some ex-spouses.
Source: Parade, "In a Divorce, Who Gets the Pets?" Michele C. Hollow, Aug. 18, 2014