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What happens to the family pets in divorce?

We love our pets in Minnesota. Dogs and cats are often treated as members of the family. When a couple gets divorced, the question of what to do with Fido can become as important and emotionally fraught as splitting up the marital property.

Because of the emotional attachment we have with our animal companions, it may be surprising to learn that Minnesota law considers pets to be chattel. That is a legal term for personal property. In other words, legally speaking there is no difference between a dog and a recliner, for property division purposes.

However, judges are starting to take the emotional attachment people have with their pets into consideration when deciding which spouse should get to keep them in the divorce. Sometimes, the court considers whether one spouse was primarily responsible for the animal’s care, and if the pet is more attached to one spouse over the other.

If both “parents” want access to the pet, they may be able to negotiate a settlement. Perhaps the ex-spouses can trade off having the pet at their home, similarly to a child custody arrangement. Or it may be better for the pet if one ex takes care of it most of the time, with “visitation time” reserved for the other.

Just as with children, divorce can be confusing and distressing for dogs and cats. Animal experts say that dogs are better able to adjust to living in two houses, as long as their routine stays the same and familiar items like their bed or water bowl follows them from house to house. Cats, on the other hand, tend to do better living in one home only.

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