When you file for divorce in Michigan and you have a dog or a cat (or another pet) with your spouse, you might be anticipating that the court has a method for determining pet custody. In other words, if you and your spouse have not come to an agreement about who will care for your pet after the divorce, you should get in touch with a Michigan divorce lawyer as soon as possible if this is an important issue for you. According to a recent article in USA Today, Michigan is one of many states that has yet to change its laws to address the need for pet custody guidelines. Unlike neighboring Illinois, which recently implemented pet custody law, Michigan family law still considers pets to be property.
What does this mean for pet owners when it comes to divorce in Michigan?
Growing Area of Family Law in the State of Michigan
If you file for divorce and you have children from the marriage, the divorce process typically progresses like this: the court divides marital property and makes decisions about spousal support, and then it moves into issues involving your kids, including child custody and child support. Where do pets fall into this equation? In brief, Michigan family courts only deal with pets when it comes to property division. Since Michigan is an equitable distribution state—as opposed to a community property state—the court divides the assets and debts of the marriage in a way that is supposed to be fair or equitable to both of the parties. What this means is that the family pet gets treated as a marital asset and is subject to distribution.
The fact that pets are treated as property in Michigan has become a contentious issue in the state, particularly among spouses who have filed for divorce and are displeased with the way the court handled so-called “pet custody” issues—a term that does not currently exist under Michigan law. As the article points out, “who gets the dog, cat, horse, or boa constrictor when the marriage ends is a question that has sparked some ferocious custody disputes and is a growing area of family law.”
While Michigan has not yet adopted any law that would change this, many advocates are pushing for it. The article describes the revision of laws to include pet custody provisions as a “trend,” pointing to the recent changes to Illinois law. However, there is no indication that such changes are coming to Michigan soon.
Getting “Custody” of Your Pet in Michigan
If Michigan law will not recognize pet custody, what are some definite ways that you can be sure to gain custody of your pet during the divorce process? The article suggests some of the following:
Show that the pet is separate property, or non-marital property: If your spouse—or anyone else—gave the pet to you as a gift during the marriage, you may be able to argue successfully that the pet should be classified as separate property and should not be subject to division. Likewise, if you obtained the pet prior to the marriage, you also may be able to show that the pet should be classified as separate property.
Come to an agreement with your spouse: Reaching an agreement about who gets ownership of the pet through negotiations and a property settlement can be binding.