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Legal guidance for co-parenting a pet with your ex

Legal guidance for co-parenting a pet with your ex

I was recently involved in a divorce case where my client was very amicable to granting all of his future ex-wife’s demands - except one. He was going to move out of the country following the divorce and requested that he be allowed custody of one of their two dogs. Surprisingly, the judge didn’t grant this request.

The family law attorney side of me argued his case. But, as a pet owner, and co-parent of a pet with my ex, I was smiling inside. The reason being is why the judge decided not to grant custody.

It turns out the two dogs were brother and sister and had been together their whole lives. The judge felt, and rightfully so, that separating them at this stage would be detrimental to their well-being.

This simple ruling represents a sea change in the way the courts are now viewing family pets. Not long ago pets were viewed strictly as property, as if they were a TV or a chair, and rarely did the court take the emotional element that pets bring to our lives into consideration. While this is still the letter of the law, judges are now much more apt to consider the role pets play in our lives.

I have seen pet parents battle just as hard over custody of their pets as many spouses do over their children. But ultimately, the best outcome for children is also usually the best outcome for pets. And that is co-parenting with shared responsibility, shared costs and most of all, shared love and attention.


Do create a parenting plan

The most important element to successfully co-parenting a pet is for both parties to be on the same page. And the best way to do that is to write out a very specific parenting plan. Just the act of sitting down and writing out all elements you’ll need to decide on helps to create the kind of teamwork you’ll need moving forward. View it as a contract and if adjustments need to be made then revise the plan in writing.

Do share costs

Money is at the root of most divorces. And the battles over finances in the divorce process can get ugly. Setting up a shared pet care cost arrangement with an ex-spouse can help negate any squabbles over who owes what. Particular attention should be paid to the “big ticket” items such as vet care. Agree in advance how the costs will be divided up in the case of an emergency visit or regular checkups.

Do create two points of contact

With physical custody being shared, it’s important that each pet parent be listed as points of contact. Make sure both are listed as the owners on the registration license, both parties information is available if your pet is microchipped, and that the vet’s records are updated with the new contact information of the spouse that has moved out of the primary residence.

Do communicate

Lack of communication drives many failed marriages but it doesn’t have to be a part of the post-marriage relationship, particularly when a pet is involved. Keep each other abreast of the activities you’ve shared with the pet and certainly of anything out of the ordinary regarding the pet’s health. Just like with people, early detection of diseases offers the best chance for cure so pay attention to warning signs and keep your ex-spouse informed.

Do enjoy your pet

People have pets for many reasons but the enjoyment we receive from them is usually at the top of the list. Even if you and your ex-spouse went through a “friendly” divorce, there will be times where you’ll struggle. It’s human nature. But remember that it’s in the animal’s nature to love you unconditionally. Finding solace and happiness with your pet can go a long way in helping to heal a broken heart.


Do not assume the court cares about emotions

Something I tell most of my clients is that, in the eyes of the law, marriage is a business contract - nothing more and nothing less. And, the more understanding we have of this legal concept, the better prepared we are for the divorce process. The same goes with understanding how the law impacts our pets. Currently, pets are viewed by the court as property. In most issues surrounding property in a divorce, a judge will give it to one spouse or the other. But, when co-parenting is desired, which adds an additional emotional component, you will be much better served by outlining your wishes in writing as opposed to trusting a judge to see beyond the letter of the law.

Do not blame your pet

In particularly contentious divorces involving children, I sometimes see one parent interacting with their child as if they were interacting with their ex-spouse. What often happens is they end up directing all the hate, rage, and anger they feel for their ex onto their child, an innocent third party. Even seeing the child can be the type of reminder that triggers negative behavior. Don’t be this person with your pet. Our pets had nothing to do with the relationship not working out and should be held blameless. If you think spending time with the pet will reopen old wounds then perhaps you need to reconsider attempting to co-parent.

Do not think co-parenting is solo

A key factor in successful co-parenting is trusting that your ex-spouse will do what’s right for your pet. It’s important to respect their time together just like you want your time with the pet respected. If your ex-spouse has an absolute “no jumping on the couch rule,” and your pet has been trained to follow it, by allowing the pet to be on the couch at your house you will only confuse the animal and undermine the training. This is why it’s so important to lay out the groundwork for co-parenting in advance.

Do not make the big decisions alone

Let’s say your pet contracts a disease and there are two treatment options provided by your vet, one very expensive and one less so. If you’ve created a co-parenting plan that states you’ll make joint decisions on expensive treatments, as well as end-of-life decisions, don’t assume what your ex-spouse would do. This is the time to put the co-parenting plan into action, discuss the issue and come to a mutually agreed upon decision.

Do not forget what really matters

Your pet doesn’t care about your money problems, your ex-spouse’s infidelity, lack of communication or any other reason that motivates people to get divorced. What your pet cares about is food, water and making sure that you know you’re the most important thing in the world. Sometimes the simplest things such as a long walk with your dog after work or curling up with your cat on the couch can wash away the anger and sadness and replace it with what comes from being on the receiving end of unconditional love. Relish these moments. Every time you do something selfless for your pet you’re not only serving its needs but your own as well.

Jumping cartoon


Life has a way of throwing us curve balls and how we adjust to them can be the difference between a happy and not so happy life. No one heads into a marriage expecting to get divorced, but when it happens we can either choose to make it a contentious, win at all costs experience or not.

By deciding to act in the best interest of our pets, accepting that our ex-spouse has an equal right to be a part of the pet’s life and then creating a parenting plan and sticking to it, we can approach our post-marriages with respect, understanding and a shared goal. In turn, not only does the pet benefit, but we do as well. Does it take some work? Absolutely. Is it worth it? From my experience, and in talking to those who also co-parent a pet with their ex, there’s no doubt about it.

More expert advice about Divorce and Separation Law

Photo Credits: 21-7-2010 246/365 Dog Roos © fomu - Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

David T. Pisarra, Esq.Family Law Attorney, Author & Public Speaker

Santa Monica, CA-based Family Law Attorney, author, public speaker and newspaper columnist David T. Pisarra Esq., heads the law firm of Pisarra and Grist as well as Men’s Family Law, dedicated to providing support and representation to men deali...

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