More of my clients are asking me about what happens to the family pet in a divorce. It’s a very direct (and perhaps callous for some) answer to an emotional question. Pets are personal property or in Ye Olde English Law speak: chattel. The family pet is divided much in the same way as the family car or couch. The “property” is valued and then awarded to one spouse, and the other spouse is given the cash equivalent or other property for her half share of the pet’s “value.” How is one to value a pet? King Solomon had ideas but we all agree that does not work for kids or, similarly, for pets. I have yet to put on such evidence in an Oregon Court but I suppose that day may come. Every pet I have “divorced” was dealt with in settlement negotiations rather than in open Court by a judge because the parties wanted control in the decision.
Parties can agree that one has sole ownership of the pet while allowing the other party a contractual right to visitation, or the parties can agree to joint ownership of the pet with some kind of mutual visitation plan. Visitation plans for a cat, dog, rabbit, [you fill in the blank], can be very complicated. What if the cat gets loose on the night she is to go to your ex? Are you in contempt of a court order if you can’t deliver the cat on the court-ordered date and time? This all sounds a bit unreal and silly, but a visitation schedule is a court order which must be followed like any other court order. A good reason to consider whether to have visitation rights of the pet in the first place.
Parties enter mutual agreements in divorce cases every day which are enforced by the Court. There are certain legal requirements that must be present in such agreements in order for a Court to uphold it like any other legal contract. There is no legal opinion under Oregon law at present that deals directly with this pet issue. So there is a significant risk if one of you challenges the validity of the agreement, that a judge may not uphold your agreement. However, a mutual agreement is the best solution under current law. Otherwise, a judge is likely to award the pet to one of you and will likely not grant visitation to the other; much in the same way you can’t both share the couch anymore.