In many divorce or legal separation settlements, the most complicated matters to resolve are child custody arrangements and the division of the couple’s assets. In recent years, however, more and more couples have found themselves caught in a legal battle somewhere between the two: custody disputes over pets. How do the courts handle pets in divorce in Washington? Under Washington law, a pet is considered just another piece of property, but many pet owners see their favorite animals as much more than that.

Contrary to popular belief, many animals do not see their human caregivers as interchangeable sources of food and shelter. Dogs, cats, and other animals do have different relationships with different people, including varying levels of closeness and willingness to obey. In other words, it does matter which person a pet ends up living with after a separation. Unfortunately, the law has not been updated to reflect this reality. Many family law judges are unfamiliar with animal behavioral issues, and may not take pet custody disputes seriously. As a result, most divorcing couples with pets are left to settle the matter between themselves.

Some couples agree on a joint custody arrangement; perhaps the pet will alternate homes each week or so, or perhaps one owner will have custody on the weekends. Unfortunately, many pets find this amount of moving around very stressful. The matter can be further complicated if one owner moves out of state or suddenly refuses to let the former spouse visit the pet.