Pet Custody In Washington

What kind of lawyer handles pet custody?

If you’re concerned about custody of your pet after a divorce or the end of a relationship you should look for a family law attorney for assistance. Not only is your pet a member of your family, but most family law attorneys work through parenting issues weekly and many of the concepts in a parenting plan for children apply to pets.

Family law attorneys draft both shared and sole custody arrangements. Modifying the state issued parenting plan to work for your dog or cat is a natural step. Depending on your goals, it can cover ways to share time, how to plan for pet related expenses and who will be responsible for big decisions in the pet’s life.

Fun fact: Two out of three dog owners in America bring their pet to the vet more often than they visit the doctor. Whether it’s a dog, cat or parrot, a family law attorney will be able to help you make the best decisions for your family member. 


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Can you win pet custody from a relationship?

You can win custody of your pet at the end of a relationship. That said it’s a risky choice to bring the issue to a judge, since one owner can leave the courthouse with full rights to the pet and the other with nothing. In order to determine your chances of winning pet custody, consider the following issues that a court will evaluate when making a pet custody decision.

When was the pet acquired?

Washington is a community property state. Property acquired during a marriage is a community and property acquired before is considered separate. This means if you owned the pet before the marriage it can be classified as your separate property. Therefore, you’ll have rights to the pet after the marriage.

For unmarried couples, if you owned the animal before the relationship you’ll have a stronger claim to your pet.

Can you show proof of ownership?

Many pets are microchipped. A pet’s owner is listed on the microchip. Similarly if you registered as your pet’s owner you’ll have documentation of ownership. Lastly, if you can demonstrate that the pet was given to you as a gift, the pet can be classified as your separate property.

Who takes care of the pet?

The primary pet parent will have a stronger claim to their pet, but they’ll need to prove it. If you’re considering taking this to court your partner must have strong feelings about the animal too and probably will state they care equally for the pet. It’s important to have proof of care. Proof can be in the form of receipts for pet supplies and food, bills from the vet and groomer, as well as pictures with the animal to establish your relationship.

Who trained the pet?

Typically the owner that trained the pet has a strong bond with the animal and demonstrated a commitment to the well being of their pet early on. Again you’ll need to provide proof of the training. Look for a certificate of graduation from a training class. Additionally, pictures or videos showing your efforts will support your claim.

Where will each owner live after the separation and what are their schedules?

A court will consider the life of the pet going forward. For example, if a couple owns a high energy golden retriever and one partner moves to the suburbs with a big yard, while the other lives in a small apartment in the city the advantage will go to the owner with the yard. Similarly, if one owner is on the road for work often or working long hours that may not be good for an animal that needs a lot of attention and exercise.

If there are children, where will they live after the separation?

Children have close ties with their pets. A pet can be especially calming during a tough time like after divorce. If kids are involved, the pets are likely to follow them.

What sort of bond did you have with your pet before the separation?

The best thing for a pet is to have an owner that truly cares. In order to demonstrate your bond to your pet it’s important to have proof of your relationship before the divorce or separation occured. If you only have evidence dated after the separation, it may be doubted. Alternatively, a history of pictures or video evidence throughout the pet’s life will show a genuine connection.

Are pets considered property in divorce?

Washington courts classify pets as property, similar to a car or retirement account. What this means is if the issue of pet ownership goes to court it is likely that a judge will award the pet to just one owner and not entertain the idea of a pet parenting plan. That said, there is a growing trend among judges to consider pets as family members and look into what is best for the pet.

This uncertainty makes it difficult to predict how a court would treat pet custody in your case. The safest choice is to decide outside of court what is best for your pet. Otherwise, you risk a decision that takes away your rights to your animal.

How much is a family pet worth in divorce?

If the court decides to assign a monetary value to a pet it will depend on the desirability, health and age of the animal. Most likely a court will look at what was initially paid for the animal and if it has any inherent value. For example, a pure bred show dog may be worth a few thousand dollars, especially if it is in demand for breeding purposes. On the other hand a court could assign a value based on what it would cost to replace the pet. This amount could include the price of vaccinations, adoption fees, and training costs.

What happens to pets in a divorce?

One of two things will happen with a pet in a divorce. Either the pet will be treated as property and awarded exclusively to one owner or it will be treated more like a child with a visitation schedule. If you’re open to shared pet custody you’ll have more decisions to make than just the schedule.    

Divorce With Pets: Cat & Dog Custody in Washington


“A pet’s life after divorce is dependent on its owners. In the best cases, owners draft their own legal arrangement, which covers pet parenting, vet bills and decision-making.”

A strong pet custody plan will create a visitation schedule. Sometimes people agree to every other week, every other month or even just being the caretaker when the primary owner is out of town. Part of the arrangement will include a drop off and pick up schedule. The local dog park is a good place to consider. 

In addition, you’ll want to decide who will pay for costs like food, grooming and toys. Don’t forget to agree to a plan for emergency situations. If you take the dog for a walk and it gets in a fight with a porcupine who should be responsible for the vet bill. 

It can be helpful to give an owner decision making authority over things like breeding, diet and end of life decisions.  You’ll also want to consider what will happen if one owner needs to move away. 

Once these decisions are made you should draft and sign a pet custody plan. This solidifies the agreement, so that there aren’t any questions on how your pet will be taken care of. It also keeps the final decision in your hands, instead of leaving things to the court. 

Who pays for a pet after divorce?

If you’ve created a pet custody plan it should include plans for costs. If not, the primary owner will likely be responsible for costs or you can agree to split them evenly. Of course, if a pet has a major accident the owner who was watching the pet at the time may be held accountable for vet bills.

It’s best to decide who will pay for pet costs during the divorce process, so there aren’t any disputes later. Common costs to plan for include food, grooming, daycare, annual veterinarian check-ups, and emergency veterinarian costs. It’s also smart to consider pet insurance. This ensures your pet is covered for medical help and decreases the chance that an owner won’t be able to pay unexpected vet bills.

Learn More About Other Family Law Services


Prenuptial Agreements


Legal Separation

Quit Claim Deeds




Child Support

Name Changes

Spousal Support


Parenting Plans

Unmarried Couples

Domestic Violence


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Talk to an attorney to get a free case evaluation.