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What does state law have to say about pet ownership?

In countless households across the U.S. pets are treated as more than just companions, but rather as members of the family. In case you have a hard time believing this, you needn't look any further than the thriving number of pet boutiques, the proliferation of "pet-friendly" spaces and even the back windows of passing cars with their ubiquitous stick-figure family decals.

Given this elevated status and the extent of the bonds formed with the family dog, cat, bird, horse and all other creatures great and small, it's perhaps no surprise that the issue of who gets custody can emerge as a rather contentious issue in the event of a divorce.

While the longstanding view of pets in the eyes of the law has been that they are property to be divided just like anything else in a divorce, there has been some shift as of late.

Indeed, reports indicate that more courts are electing to award shared custody or visitation rights to divorcing pet owners, while lawmakers in some states have actually enacted pet-custody legislation requiring courts to consider the well-being of the animal when awarding custody.

As laudable as this development has been, it's important for pet owners to understand that Florida has yet to adopt this progressive approach.

In other words, the courts here still treat pets as property, such that if a couple is unable to arrive at their own agreement, a judge will decide the matter in accordance with the state's equitable distribution scheme and no visitation rights will be granted.

This means that a determination will first be made as to whether the pet in question is separate property -- acquired by one spouse before the marriage, given as a gift, etc. -- and, if not, a host of factors considered in deciding which spouse should receive the pet. Indeed, if one spouse has primary physical custody of the children, they are often awarded the pet so as to make the divorce process easier for the family.

What all of this underscores, say experts, is the need for pet owners to discuss the matter of pet custody well in advance or, failing this, to be open-minded about shared custody or visitation.

The good news is that people appear to be doing this, as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) recently reported that 30 percent of surveyed attorneys noted a decrease in pet custody cases over the last three years.      

Consider speaking with a skilled legal professional if you have questions or concerns relating to property division or another divorce-related issue.

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