Who Gets Pet Custody in a Colorado Divorce?

Posted in Divorce,Separation on March 15, 2019

Studies show that pet ownership has increased in the last few decades. Since the first National Pet Owners Survey in 1988, pet ownership has gone up by 12%, from 56% of U.S. households to 68% in 2018. Studies also show the increase in pet ownership correlates to a decrease in younger generations having children. The outcome? Many couples getting divorced today treat their pets like their children – creating intense pet custody battles during Colorado divorce cases.

Deciding Your Own Pet Custody Arrangement

Pet custody is like many other aspects of a divorce case in that it does not have to fall to the decision of the courts. Couples will have the option to arrange their own pet custody agreement before a judge intervenes. This is almost always preferable than taking a pet custody case to trial. Trials can be unpredictable, and you may end up losing custody of your pet altogether, rather than settling on a compromise with your ex-spouse.

First, try to work out an agreeable arrangement between you and the other pet parent. Create a plan for the pet as part of how you and your spouse will separate property. The courts will always try to approve divorce arrangements a family creates before intervening. If you and your ex-spouse cannot work it out alone, consider hiring a mediator to help with negotiations. Mediation is not a trial. It is a meeting between you, your spouse, and an unbiased third-party mediator to act as a judge. You may also have attorneys present, if desired.

Mediation can help you resolve a pet custody battle without needing to take your case to court. You and your spouse can both present your cases, and the mediator will make a final suggestion as to how the issue should be resolved. You and your ex-spouse may either accept the suggestion and make it your official divorce contract, or reject the solution and proceed to the next step – a court trial. If your pet custody case does go before a judge, know that the courts will see your cat or dog like personal property, not like a child.

Pets as Property in Colorado

You may not see your pet as just another piece of owned property, but that is how the Colorado legal system views it. Your pet may be like a beloved family member, but in the eyes of the law, he or she is just another asset of the marriage. Thus, Colorado’s property division laws will preside over your pet custody case, not child custody laws. Here is a breakdown of how property division works in Colorado.

  • Separate vs. community property. Separate property is any and all assets either spouse possessed prior to the date of marriage. Community property, on the other hand, is assets the couple obtained during the course of the marriage – or assets the couple legally decided to share, such as joining two separate bank accounts.
  • Equitable distribution rules. Colorado is an equitable distribution, or common law, state. The courts will not split community property down the middle, in a 50/50 division. Instead, the courts will typically allot a greater portion of shared assets to the higher-earning spouse in the relationship.
  • How the court makes marital property decisions. In general, the courts cannot touch separate property. Each spouse will maintain ownership of his or her own separate properties. The state’s equitable division rule will only apply to community, or marital, properties and assets.
  • Fault vs. no-fault divorce. Colorado is a no-fault divorce state. Your spouse cannot use your fault for the split against you during property division or child custody disputes. In other words, even if you are at fault for causing your divorce, this will not automatically bar you from pet custody. Instead, the courts will split property in an equitable manner.

If you owned your pet prior to the marriage, odds are the courts will view the pet as your own separate property. Custody of the pet will likely go to you and not your spouse. If, however, you and your spouse purchased or adopted the pet after marriage (or obtained the pet jointly prior to marriage), the courts will determine custody as it would any other piece of property, in most cases.

The Answer Depends on the Court

Colorado does not have any specific pet custody laws. This makes the matter somewhat unclear and unpredictable. The courts will determine pet custody on a case-by-case basis. Some judges may look at a pet purely as property, and divide it along with other pieces of property, such as a residence or income. Other judges, however, may consider some of the child custody rules when determining a pet custody dispute.

Your judge, for example, may examine what is in the best interests of the pet to determine whether you or your spouse should have custody. The judge may listen to both sides of the argument, assess what would be best for the pet in question, and determine a sole or joint custody arrangement based on the facts of your case. How the courts treat your particular situation depends entirely on the judge, since no legal governance exists for such situations.

Can You Improve Your Chances of Securing Pet Custody?

It may be difficult to predict how a pet custody battle will go, but you can improve your chances of a satisfactory outcome by hiring a lawyer. Hiring an attorney because of your pet may seem unnecessary, until you realize the chance of your pet going to neither you nor your spouse exists. It is in the court’s power to order that the pet goes to a third party if you and your spouse cannot work out an agreement between yourselves. A judge may choose not to intervene in these situations, and decide to send the pet to a separate home instead of assigning custody.

If custody of your pet post-divorce is important to you, hire a divorce attorney to represent you during mediation or a divorce trial. A lawyer during your mediation can improve the odds of you and your spouse coming to a satisfactory compromise on pet custody and visitation rights, without needing to go to court. If your case does proceed to trial, a lawyer can state your claim to the pet through property division and/or custody laws. Your lawyer may be able to prove to a judge that you are the owner that will do what is best for the animal.

Proof of your position as the right choice may include demonstrating that you were the one who took primary care of the animal during the marriage. If you were the one who spent more money on the pet’s healthcare, more time walking or feeding the pet, and more attention on the pet, you could win primary custody – even if your spouse was the one who initially purchased the animal. Your attorney can set up witnesses to testify to your care of the pet, as well as collect evidence such as vet bills.

If you are currently facing a potential pet custody battle with your spouse during a divorce case, focus on what is best for your pet. Try to come to an agreement together, with help from lawyers and mediators. Neither spouse should use a pet to hurt or manipulate the other spouse.

If you need help getting custody of a pet you believe should be yours, trust an experienced attorney to make your case for you during mediation or a trial in Colorado.