Pets are part of the family, and about 80% of owners view them as such. Whether the animal is a pug or an American short hair, a ferret, or an iguana, your pet holds a special spot in your heart. However, unlike children, Arizona law does not consider pets as legal family members. Rather, pets are personal property, and in the past, their status in divorce suits was solely based on their financial value, rather than emotional. In most cases, the animal will be assigned a financial value when it comes time to divide personal assets, and balanced against other financial assets. In most divorces, it is up to the divorcing spouses (rather than the court or judge) to determine who gets pet custody, and whether or not the other parent will have access to the animal.
Pets in America & Arizona
About 85 million American families own a pet. Based on data that shows there are roughly 128 million households in the United States as of 2018, 1.9 million of which are in Arizona. Statistically, it means that approximately 67% of all US households have at least one pet. Extrapolating from this, that means about 1.27 million households in Arizona have a pet whose family loves and cares for the animal.
In 2017, there were 787,251 divorces in the United States. Assuming that 67% of these households had a pet, that means roughly 527,458 divorces involved determining pet custody.
Pets Are Personal Property, Under Current Arizona Law
In the eyes of the law, pets are personal property and Arizona courts consider the pet as an asset. Since Arizona is a community property state, the animal’s financial value is what the courts will look at when determining who gets pet custody. In most cases, a negligible number is assigned to the animal, and the divorcing spouses get to agree upon a fair division of property based on this estimate.
For instance, if the Pekingese is estimated to have a value of $1,000, then the spouse who gets the dog will have this included on their side of the property distribution table. For the other spouse, it means that they will be entitled to an asset of equal value for their side of the table.
Of course, pets have more than monetary value and judges tend to recognize that fact as societal attitudes evolve. Indeed, several states have either passed, or have introduced, legislation that establishes custody and visitation rights for pets. When companionship and love are considered, the animal’s value becomes significantly more important than the numbers on the receipt from the pet store. Further, while Arizona law currently considers pets as property, the courts are increasingly aiming to protect the best interests of the animal.
Sorting Through Some of the Most Common Details
If the animal was acquired during the marriage, the pet is considered community property. However, if it was acquired before the marriage, the animal is considered separate property. Thus, the animal will go with the spouse who owned the animal before the wedding.
Of all the details that the court will look at when assigning custody of a pet in Arizona, children are one of the most significant considerations. Whenever possible, the courts often have a preference of keeping the family pet with the children. One reason for this is that there is substantial evidence that pet ownership can ease the emotional strains divorce exerts on children. The love and support of a pet can help them process the divorce psychologically and move forward as the “new normal” sets in. In most cases, parents agree to allow the pet to stay with the children, and it is not usually a point of contention unless abuse, neglect, or another factor that could cause harm for the pet is also in the picture.
The court can also consider various claims of ownership. They may look at who has undertaken the primary caretaker role. The judge will look at who feeds the animal, who takes the pet to the veterinarian, who takes it for walks, trains it, etc.
Another factor the court can look at is the work situation of the spouses. If one parent works from home, it usually means that the animal is not accustomed to being alone for long periods. Similarly, if one spouse regularly travels for work, they may not have the ability to provide the care the animal needs.
Further, if one spouse is financially insolvent, this can make it difficult for them to care for the pet. In such instances, the courts will often grant pet ownership to the spouse whose financial circumstances allow them to feed, house, and provide veterinary care. The court can consider these factors regarding the welfare of the animal and will usually choose to award custody of the pet to the spouse who is best able to care for the animal.
Just because the bonds between you and your spouse are broken, it doesn’t break the bonds with the pets. However, Arizona courts don’t have the authority to award visitation rights for animals. This means that if the “non-custodial” spouse wants to spend time with the family pooch, it is necessary to negotiate an agreement.
Entering into binding arbitration is usually the most comfortable, most expedient way to go about this. During the arbitration process, both spouses will present their evidence and the reasons they want to spend time with the animal. The arbitrator will review the evidence and determine a fair pet custody arrangement for both parties. This arrangement is submitted to the court as an order of the court, and the court can hold both spouses to the letter of the agreement.
Whenever possible, negotiating pet custody is the most advisable route to take. When you are negotiating the agreement, there are specific, critical issues you will want to finalize. These include where the animal will reside, visitation rights, financial responsibility for the pet’s needs, and how to handle decisions regarding medical care.
The Myth (and Misinterpretation) of the “6 Day Rule”
Arizona Revised Statutes 11-1001 states that anyone who has an animal for six days or longer is considered the owner of the pet. Many urban myths and rumors are floating around over this frequently Googled rule. Some misinterpret this to mean that if one spouse has physical possession of the pet for six days or longer, then it is their pet, clear and free.
That is a misinterpretation of the law. The purpose of ARS 11-1001 is not to determine pet custody; rather, it is to ascertain responsibility regarding animal control. For instance, legal liability if the animal were to cause physical harm to someone. It has absolutely nothing to do with which spouse will receive the pet in the divorce.
The team at Simon Law Group, PLLC understands that pets are part of your family and that you want the best for them as the divorce process moves forward. We invite you to contact us at (480) 405-7568 to learn more about the options that are available and the strategies we recommend for determining pet custody based on your specific circumstances.
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