How Pet Ownership is Treated in a Colorado Divorce

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Pet ownership can be among the most meaningful experiences a person can have. Owning a pet can teach us all sorts of lessons about caring, responsibility, compassion, and so forth. This is why parents often encourage their children to own and care for a pet; it’s also why many families consider their dog or cat to be “one of the family.” However, in a divorce, the reality is that pets are not viewed with the same type of sentimentality. In this post, we will go over the basics of how pets are treated in the context of divorce here in Colorado.

Default Rule: Pets Treated as Personal Property

Although many people are strongly attached to their pets – especially a cat or dog – the law doesn’t view pet ownership along these lines. As we’ve discussed, property division is one of the major aspects of divorce. When couples separate, they have to formally divide their “marital property” in a fair and equitable fashion. From the standpoint of Colorado family law, pets are considered “personal property.” This means that they are treated in essentially the same manner as any other piece of personal property, such as an automobile or item of jewelry. This may sound a bit rough, but this is simply the most pragmatic way to handle the situation. If the law treated pets in a sentimental way, this would likely complicate property division in a costly and overly burdensome manner.

The assignment of ownership of pets following a divorce is consistent with this principle: any pets which are considered “marital property” will be divided according to their economic value. Suppose a couple pays $1,200 for a poodle. When the marital property is divided, the poodle will be divided based on its value of $1,200, rather than which partner had the most significant personal attachment. However, readers should keep in mind that pets can also be viewed as separate property, just like any other type of property. If a spouse acquires a pet before the marriage, then the pet will likely be considered separate property for purposes of property division and will be retained by the original owner.

Private Agreements Can Overcome Default Rule

One notable point to highlight is the fact that this “default rule” can be overcome with a private agreement. Just as couples are free to create a prenuptial agreement to predetermine the distribution of personal property in case of divorce – such as bank accounts, stocks, etc. – they can also create agreements which predetermine the distribution of pets. Suppose a married couple pays $1,500 for a dalmatian, but one spouse wishes to retain ownership in the event of divorce. Although the dog would be considered marital property because of the timing of the acquisition, a private agreement could overcome this principle, and the dog could be assigned to one spouse automatically.

Courts May Assign Pets Based on Personal Evidence

Another point to keep in mind is that Colorado courts have a history of taking account of personal stories in cases involving pets. In other words, although the letter of the law certainly views pets as property, this doesn’t mean that judges won’t consider the personal circumstances underlying pet ownership altogether when assigning pets in a divorce. Although the economic value of a given pet will still be relevant, judges have been known to take personal circumstances into account when assigning pets. So, if one person strongly wishes to retain possession of a pet, and there is a reasonable basis for assigning ownership, then a Colorado judge may take this into consideration. A reasonable basis could be that one person got the pet as an emotional support animal after a notable tragic event. This may give a reasonable basis that a judge considers when deciding who will be assuming ownership of the pet.

Contact the Drake Law Firm for More Information

Hopefully, this overview sheds a bit of light on the situation with regard to pet ownership in divorce. Many people are often surprised that pets are not considered “children” in Colorado family law, and that couples don’t develop “custody arrangements” just as they would for children. Although many people view their pets with this level of affection, that’s simply not how the law is written. To learn more, contact the Drake Law Firm today by calling (720) 790-4023.