Who Legally Gets the Dog in a Breakup?

Dogs have earned their reputation as man’s best friend. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that approximately 4 in 10 U.S. households own a dog. A dog can be a lot more than just a pet, they can become a true member of the family. When going through a separation—whether a breakup or a divorce—determining what happens to the dog can be especially stressful. How does the law actually work? Here, you will find a comprehensive overview of key things that you should understand about who will legally get the dog in a breakup.

Legal Background: Pets are Property (In Most States)

To navigate dogs and divorces/breakups, it is crucial that you understand how the law actually works. These can be emotionally charged, contentious issues. A comprehensive legal background will put you in a far better position to navigate the process. Here is the central thing to know: 

  • Despite the emotional connection that people may have with their dogs, the law generally views them as property.

In other words, most jurisdictions in the United States treat a dog the same as they treat furniture, vehicles, and other forms of personal property. This classification stems from the historical legal principle that dogs and other pets are tangible things that can be bought, sold, and transferred. 

To be clear, most states operate under a legal structure where dogs and other pets are a form of personal property. However, there has been a push for reforms across the country in recent years. In a minority of jurisdictions, the law has already changed. 
The most notable example is California. Under a 2019 law (California Family Code § 2605), the state’s statute was altered to effectively create a “pet custody” process for divorce. A California court now has the power to award a dog (or cat) to one party in a divorce based on who would do a better job caring for the animal.

Breaking Up: The person Who Owns the Dog Gets to Keep the Dog

What happens to the dog when a couple who is unmarried breaks up? The legal answer rests on the principle that pets—including dogs—are property. The person who owns the dog or brought the dog into the relationship has the legal right to keep the dog, regardless of any emotional attachments or bonds created with the pet. If the couple bought the dog together while they were in a relationship, they both have ownership rights, and division can be more complicated. 

Legal ownership of a dog does not “transfer” to a person’s unmarried partner based on their care for or relationship with the animal. Once again, the law views the dog primarily as property. Imagine that you let your significant other drive your car while you were together. They also gassed it up and helped with maintenance. Still, they do not own your vehicle. If you break up, it is your car. A dog is treated the same way in the eyes of the law.

Getting a Divorce: Dogs and Other Pets are Generally Subject to Property Distribution 

What happens when a couple who has a dog gets a formal divorce? With exceptions for a small minority of states (such as California), the pet is treated purely as property, and it is subject to property division. 41 states operate under an equitable distribution system. The remaining nine states operate a community property standard. In both types of jurisdictions, pets are property unless there is a specific state statute that holds to the contrary. In effect, this means that your pet will be treated like any other asset—a house, a car, a valuable antique, etc..

Of course, this creates some serious challenges. The “value” of a dog is not something that can be easily quantified with a dollar figure. The relationship between a person and a beloved pet is strong and sentimental. The legal system is not always well-equipped to handle dogs (and cats) in a divorce As a consequence, it often falls on the spouses to work towards a resolution that makes sense for their specific situation. 

Collaborative Solutions Often Work Best for Pets and Divorce 

Collaborative solutions involve both parties working together to find a mutually beneficial solution for their pet. For example, mediation may be the best approach. The American Bar Association (ABA) explains that mediation is a private process “where a neutral third person called a mediator helps the parties discuss and try to resolve the dispute.” It is flexible, confidential, and non-binding. Mediation can be effective in resolving a wide range of complex divorce issues, including those related to dogs. Benefits of Collaborative Solutions for Pets and Divorce:

  • Reduced Stress for the Pet: Collaborative solutions can help reduce the stress and anxiety that pets may experience during the divorce process. By keeping the pet’s routine as consistent as possible and ensuring that they are still receiving the love and care that they need, the pet is more likely to adapt to their new living situation.
  • Better Outcomes for Spouses: Collaborative solutions can help both parties achieve a better outcome for themselves and their pets. By working together, they can find a solution at works for everyone and ensures that the pet’s well-being is a top priority.
  • Less Conflict: A cooperative approach to divorce can help reduce conflict between both parties. By working together to find a solution, both parties can feel heard and understood and can avoid the need for lengthy court battles.
  • More Cost-Effective: Divorce litigation is expensive. It can often be avoided. Resolving a matter outside of court can be a more cost-effective option. By working together, both parties can avoid costly legal fees and find a solution that works for everyone.
  • Focus on the Dog’s Well-Being: Finally, collaborative divorce solutions allow both parties to focus on the pet’s well-being rather than their own interests. Doing so can help ensure that the pet is cared for and loved, regardless of which party has custody (ownership).
Natalie is a writer and researcher who has been supporting the legal industry with her work for years. As the Lead Copyeditor at ONE400, the nation's premier law innovation agency, she's responsible for creating original content and editing articles submitted to the website. She has over five years of professional experience writing and editing across a variety of print and digital platforms. Her work has been featured across a number of legal industry publications and sites.
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