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Does Virginia divorce law include ‘custody’ for the family pet?

On Behalf of | Jun 16, 2023 | Divorce

A major component of divorce when parents split up is determining child custody. Reston parents going through divorce want the best possible custody arrangement for their kids, even if they don’t necessarily agree on the details.

While the kids always come first, for many families, the pet dogs or cats are loved almost as much. And divorce likely means the pets’ relationship with at least one of the spouses (and perhaps the children too) must change. However, like every other state, Virginia divorce law does not include “pet custody” in the same way that there is child custody.

Chattel, not children

Instead, pets are legally considered “chattel,” a legal term that means personal property. In other words, what to do with your pets falls under property division, not child custody. That might sound cold to animal lovers, but pets are not treated as human beings in family law.

This means that there will be no custody order for one party to enforce against the other. Instead, you will negotiate who gets to keep the pets as part of your property settlement, or else the judge will decide. But if you and your ex are on good enough terms, you might be able to work out an informal arrangement. For example, one ex could house the dogs while the other gets to walk them or take them to the park a couple of times per week. But the court will not issue an order formalizing that arrangement. Neither side can go to court to enforce it if the other party stops abiding by it.

Court rulings in a few states outside of Virginia have hinted at treating pets as something more than chattel in divorce proceedings. But for now, the law remains essentially the same nationwide.

Tell your lawyer about your pets

Your divorce settlement should reflect your individual needs and priorities. If you own pets, you can discuss that with your divorce attorney.


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