As we have all likely witnessed at the park, vet’s office, or pet food store, some people treat their pets just like furry or feathered offspring – and some may even treat their pets better than they treat their children. Today, pets can have substantial value in the divorce process and are given significant consideration in divorce proceedings. For the purposes of divorce, pets are defined as non-working domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, birds, etc. Until recently, pets have generally been considered personal property in divorce actions and have been assigned to either party as a part of the division of personal property. Recently there has been a move in the courts to consider pets as more than just personal property. In 2011 Massachusetts enacted statutes allowing for enforcement of trusts created to care and provide for animals. Also, both federal and state laws have created special protections to shield animals from abuse. In the world of family law and divorce, in 2013, a New York court granted a couple’s motion to argue over pet custody for the first time in the country’s history. Some courts outside of Massachusetts have taken a “best-interest” approach to assigning pets to one party or the other (i.e. the courts have considered which of the divorcing spouses is best able to provide care, attention, and basic needs to the pet). So who gets the dog, cat or fish? The answer to the question will depend on many factors and with “pet law” evolving throughout the country, we will see a trend toward assignment of the animal based on the companion relationship of the spouses to the pets, rather than simply treating animals as merely another piece of personal property. Currently, however, pets are still viewed by a majority of the courts, including Massachusetts, to be personal property of the marital estate. Ultimately, pets are part of the division of assets and will be assigned a value in divorce proceedings. As difficult as it may be for parties who love their dog or cat to understand, a custody arrangement with visitation/parenting time is not likely to be ordered by a court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under the current law. If you are getting divorced and want to understand how to keep your pet, a family law attorney can provide guidance and advice. If you are considering providing for your pet’s care in the event of your death or disability, contact an estate planning attorney to assist you. Some attorneys practice within both areas of law and you may be able to find one in your community.
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