Americans’ attitudes toward pets have changed over the last several decades. Today, many pet owners call themselves “pet parents” and their pets “fur babies.” While these relationships have evolved, animal law has been slow to follow suit. This can present some unique challenges when a married couple who shares a pet (or pets) decides to divorce. As is true of many circumstances surrounding divorce, you have options for dealing with this challenge. To make sure you are protecting your interests — and the best interests of your pet — it is wise to consult with an experienced Maryland divorce lawyer about your situation.
One location where the law is evolving is neighboring D.C. In April of this year, the “Animal Care and Control Omnibus Amendment Act of 2022” took effect. That new law says that, when a couple goes through a divorce or a legal separation proceeding, the trial judge should consider the “best interests” of the “pet animals” when deciding which spouse gets the pets.
Here in Maryland, the law functions differently. Maryland law says that pets are personal property, essential the same as a car, a boat, or a sofa. The significance of that — in terms of a divorce — is that your pets (much like that hypothetical car, boat, or sofa) are subject to equitable distribution if you acquired them during your marriage. (If you brought them into your marriage, the law often will deem them your non-marital property and you will retain them after the divorce. The same is true for pets your spouse brought into the marriage.)
If the pet is subject to equitable distribution, the possibilities are highly varied. If the pet is, for example, a mixed-breed dog (a/k/a a “mutt”) or a domestic house cat, they likely have minimal economic value, and their impact on the overall equitable distribution will be small. But if the pet is a registered pure-breed animal and/or has value as a breeder, then their worth might be quite substantial and (especially if there is a disagreement about that value) it could become necessary to obtain an appraisal to establish the animal’s worth, much like some divorcing couples have to do with a collectible car or antique furniture.
There are ways to avoid a problematic pet outcome within a divorce judgment. One of the best ways is to work out an agreement with your spouse. You can do this once you’ve decided to pursue a divorce or you can place these terms in a prenuptial agreement.
Determining Pet Custody via a Contractual Agreement
Because Maryland law doesn’t contemplate pets in the way it views children, you have broad latitude under the freedom of contract to construct an agreement about your pet(s) in whatever way you want. If you want to agree, for example, that you get the dog during the first and third quarters of every year and your spouse gets her during the second and fourth quarters, the law generally allows you to sign a contract to that effect.
You probably want to consider other factors — like the extent to which moving your pet back and forth between homes may be detrimental to her overall health, happiness, and well-being — but the law generally will do little or nothing to prevent you from inking a pet custody and visitation agreement with your spouse.
An agreement could also be a beneficial way to work out other pet-related details. Those could include things like expenses. Who pays for the pet toys, the cat litter, the food, and the vet bills? Do those expenses always fall 100% on whoever has the pet at the time the expenses are incurred? Are all pet expenses split 50-50? Under Maryland law, it’s possible to draft a valid contract that enshrines either of these methods.
This sort of contract could also establish the procedures for dealing with a pet’s final illness and death, including whether or not both spouses have to agree before euthanizing a gravely ill pet and whether or not a deceased pet will be cremated, interred, or both.
Whether your divorce involves a cat, a dog, a horse, a bird who swears or only inanimate property, you’re probably highly invested in achieving certain outcomes. To ensure your interests are protected to the maximum extent possible, get in touch with the experienced Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. Whether your absolute divorce case turns on alimony, property division, or other issues, we have the knowledge and experience to help you achieve a fair outcome. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.