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Delaware has changed how pets are considered in divorce

When spouses divorce, what happens to their pets can make a big difference in how they and their children deal with the often massive changes that divorce brings to the entire family. Pets are often a source of solace and continuity for adults and children. 

When couples with kids divorce and share custody, pets often transition between homes with them. When couples without children divorce, it’s not uncommon for “custody” of a beloved dog or cat to be the thing they most passionately fight over.

The law enacted last year

Last year, Gov. John Carney signed a law that made Delaware one of a growing number of states where the well-being of the animal is central to the decision of where that animal lives and who is responsible for their care. If a couple can’t work this out on their own, a judge must consider what’s best for the animal. 

Previously (and currently in many other states), companion animals are considered no different from marital property to be divided by the spouses – like homes and bank accounts. By treating animals as sentient beings rather than inanimate objects, it becomes more difficult for a spouse to seek to keep a pet simply to get back at their soon-to-be ex and easier for spouses to make the case that the animal should stay with them because they’re the one who has been their primary caregiver and with whom they’re bonded.

Two other laws that protect animals caught up in family abuse

Along with this law, Gov. Carney signed two others that help protect companion animals’ safety and well-being. One allows people to include pets in domestic violence protection orders. The other requires those who are “mandated reporters” for child abuse — like social services employees and law enforcement – to report suspected animal abuse as well. Both laws help address the safety of pets who too often become the victims of abusers or at least used as leverage to keep their victims from moving out or going to the authorities.

If you’re considering separation or divorce, don’t assume that your pet will get to stay with you – no matter how devoted you are to them. If your spouse feels the same way, you may need to make a case for sole “custody” or at least shared pet parenting rights. It’s smart to get legal guidance as soon as possible on that rather than wait until other matters have been settled.