I often receive questions regarding pet custody. In fact, pet custody disputes are a growing portion of the cases in my animal law practice.
For many pet owners like myself, pets are more than just a companion, and certainly more than a chair or an appliance; they are a part of the family. Although many people think of their pets like their children, Washington State law considers pets as personal property—no different than a car or a piece of jewelry. In a child custody case, the custody arrangement is determined by the child’s best interest. But when it comes to your furry little friend, how does the law determine who gets the dog?
Pet ownership in Washington is legally determined by examining property rights with regard to the animal. When I meet with a client who is involved in a pet ownership dispute, I ask them a bunch of questions regarding the dog’s “ownership journey”: Who originally purchased the animal? What is this animal worth? Is there a bill of sale or adoption/purchase contract for the animal? Who is the pet registered to? What do the vet records say? Is the pet microchipped? Was the pet a gift? Who was paying the pet’s expenses? Where does/did the pet live?
Outside of court, there are many creative options for settling pet ownership disputes. Folks might decide on a “shared custody” type agreement, where each party keeps the animal for part of the week. There might be an exchange of funds in return for one party’s relinquishment of any claim to the animal.
To avoid a complicated pet custody battle, have the pet ownership discussion with your spouse or partner beforehand. Don’t let folks keep your pet in their home long-term without some kind of written agreement. Be a responsible pet owner and license, microchip and tag you pet with identification that shows you as the owner. If you have any further questions regarding pet custody in Washington, feel free to contact me!