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Examining the Rights of pets During a Texas Divorce

These days, a pet is more than just a four-legged friend who hangs around the house. Rather, pets are seen as actual members of the family by many of us southeast Texans. The idea of parting ways with a pet can be enough to cause us to become emotional. Our pets are there for us in good times and bad. We are grateful to have them in our lives and as a result, we treat them with the utmost respect and dignity. There can be problems, then, when a divorce is on the horizon and there is uncertainty when it comes to where your pet is going to live and how everything is going to work out with him or her. 

Despite what we may think of our pets, the law in Texas is clear that pets are property and not members of our families. Property can be owned, and your dog is treated like a table, chair, or any other household item technically speaking. Of course, your dog means more to you than the kitchen table but in the eyes of the Texas Family Code, that is how your animal(s) will be treated within the context of a divorce case. However, there are steps that you and your spouse can follow to make sure that your pet is going to be cared for as well as possible moving forward no matter the outcome of your divorce. 

The way that most couples choose to do this is to set aside orders in their Final Decree of Divorce which accounts for the care, supervision, and health of your pet. It is still not a situation that is on par with caring for children, but it is something approaching that sort of arrangement. Depending upon how detailed you and your spouse want to get with the orders, the life of your pet can be planned intricately because of your divorce. 

In today’s blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, we are going to discuss what it means to plan for the life of your pet after a Texas divorce. If you are a pet owner who cares a great deal for your pet, then this is a blog post that we hope will be of great help to you. After reading through the information, we are discussing today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan if you have any questions. We offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, or via videos. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as how your four-legged friend may be impacted if you go through a divorce. 

Pets and community property law

Texas is a community property state. Before we go into any sort of detail about how your pet may be treated in a divorce, we should first walk through what community property is and how it can impact your divorce here in the Lone Star State. When we talk about community property, attorneys are referring to the way that property between spouses is divided upon the death of a spouse or the divorce of both spouses. This is important because this legal theory will greatly impact your divorce when it comes to the division of property including your pet. It can seem cold-hearted, but your dog, cat, or parakeet will be lumped in with the rest of your community property and can be divided into a divorce

Community property is any property that was acquired or purchased during your marriage. This could be something small like an end table or something substantial like a house. An exception to this rule is that if the property were acquired during the marriage as a gift or inheritance then those types of property would belong to the recipient as separate rather than community property. However, for the most part, all property that you or your spouse acquire during your marriage will be community property and thus subject to being divided in the case. 

With that introduction to community property out of the way, we can look at specifically how your pet could be treated during the divorce. Depending upon the length of your marriage it may be true that your dog is separate property belonging to either you or your spouse. Newlyweds who brought the dog or cat into your marriage can technically point to this as proof that the animal is separate property. This would mean that if push came to shove a judge could not divide the animal between you and your spouse since it is separately owned by one of you. 

On the other hand, if your pet is community property then you and your spouse will have some decisions to make as far as how to handle the division of the property in question or if you would prefer to go in a different direction. Theoretically, you could just say that you don’t want to mess with creating any kind of orders regarding your pet and therefore the animal could go to your spouse in the divorce with you saying goodbye to him or her. However, since you’re reading this blog post I am going to assume that you do not feel this way about your pet. 

The power is yours to determine how to divide up the family pet

One of the great things about divorce in Texas is that the process empowers you and your spouse to be able to make decisions together about how to divide up community property. We have been talking about community property having to be divided in a divorce and that would be true if your case went all the way to a trial. However, you and your spouse will have ample opportunity to work on dividing up the property as a team through settlement negotiations. In being able to work together on this subject you two can take the power away from a judge and keep it in your family. You both can likely figure out what is best for your pet more than a family court judge. 

Settlement negotiations typically occur in one of two different spaces. The first is through informal settlement negotiations that are held between you and your spouse during the divorce. This is often done with the assistance of your attorneys, but nothing is stopping you two from talking throughout the case itself to see if you can reach a consensus on important issues like those involving your pet. The spouses who express the greatest satisfaction with their divorce outcomes are frequently those who take it upon themselves to negotiate their case directly with one another. Even when you two do not see eye to eye on every subject you can usually put aside your differences long enough to talk through these issues. This is especially true when the alternative is having to go to court shortly thereafter to have a family court judge make those decisions for you and your family. 

Mediation is the avenue that you and your spouse will likely take toward a settlement destination. As opposed to the informal nature of most of the settlement negotiations that you and your spouse will take part in during your divorce, mediation is a formal settlement conference. An independent, third-party mediator will assist you and your spouse with negotiating a settlement to any outstanding issues in your case. Mediation occurs at the office of the mediator who is usually a practicing family law attorney. The mediator will have you and your lawyer in one room while your spouse and their attorney will be in another. The mediator will then walk back and forth between rooms to help facilitate conversation and settlement negotiations.

Either of these methods to settle cases is effective at ending divorce stalemates and helping people just like you settle their divorce cases. Especially with mediation involved, I would estimate that upwards of 90% of divorce cases in Texas can avoid trials and can settle ahead of time. Of course, your circumstances may be different so you should consider that. The more prepared you are to negotiate, the better defined your goals and the more willing you are to communicate with your spouse about these issues greatly increases your ability to perform well in the divorce. 

The risk, in a situation where you are concerned with the well-being of your pet, is that you all cannot agree on how to divide up time with the animal. This can be a risky proposition given that the judge could make all different sorts of rulings on how to divide up time with your pet. It could go to your advantage or the advantage of your spouse. Or the judge may just split time with the animal down the middle where you share “custody” of the animal. I told you it could be a lot like how child custody issues are dealt with. 

On top of that, we haven’t even begun to discuss financial issues associated with your pet. What if your pet needed surgery or at least regular medical treatment? How would that be paid for? Did you have pet insurance that could help you pay for these expenses? How are you both going to divide up costs that come out of pocket related to the care of your animal? When you go through a divorce your first instinct may be to think mostly about how you would divide up time with the animal. The most consequential decision-making part of the case may have to do with dividing up costs depending upon the circumstances of your family and the animal. 

What about decision-making for the animal? Fortunately, this is a more limited discussion than when it comes to children. When it comes to decision-making for kids there are far-ranging issues related to their well-being, best interests, medical treatment, and education. Much more diverse and comprehensive set of issues than you would be facing when it comes to your pet. However, there are still questions that need to be answered about how to divide up decision-making on medical issues among others when it comes to your pet. The last thing you want to do is find yourself in a position where you and your spouse are having to argue about whether your dog should have surgery that increases its life span by six months and costs $10,000. 

If you are given the dog by the judge, the judge would probably assign a value to possession of the dog and then divide up the remaining community property assets accordingly. If your dog is valued at $15,000 then you would lose $15,000 in other assets to your spouse. Or you may be ordered to pay an extra bill or something like that to even out the transaction. Much of the property division components to a divorce ultimately start to feel like you are dividing up a business (which in some cases you may be). This can fly in the face of how you feel about your pet. However, if you want to be engaged in the process and compete in a way that you can win the rights and time with your pet that you desire you must be committed. Being able to think outside the box won’t hurt, either. 

Visitation- what would a court do?

As we talked about earlier in today’s blog post many people would not mind having visitation established for their pet as if the animal were a human child. For some people, this is a laughable idea, like something out of a bad movie. However, for others, it is a real-life consideration and a reflection of the important role that pet plays in their life. If your case were to go before a judge what would the court likely have to say about how to spend time with your animal?

The judge in your case is very unlikely to spend time issuing orders that mirror a standard possession order for a child. Again, your pet may feel like a child to you but he or she is an animal and thus is property. In that case, your pet would not get a possession schedule for you and your spouse to follow moving forward. With so many issues in a typical divorce, a court would not venture to touch that subject. Either way, you and your spouse would be responsible for coming up with a schedule to follow- or not. 

On the other hand, the court could decide how to divide the animal as property. There are three decisions that a court could make regarding the animal and who it should wind up with. The pet could be awarded to you, your spouse, or neither. When determining who the animal should go to in the divorce, the court would first need to determine that the pet is community property. If it was purchased before your marriage began, then it would be the separate property of either you or your spouse. In which case the court would not be able to divide it up in any way. 

When determining how to award the pet to either you or your spouse the court would look to factors like which one of you spent the most time and effort in caring for the animal during your marriage. This is one area where the awarding of a pet to either of you can feel like how custody decisions are made regarding children. Again, a pet is not a person, but it is sort of interesting/amusing that this is the case. Testimony would be necessary to be taken for the court to learn more about the nature of the relationship between each of you and the pet. 

When it is all said and done, this truly is a subject that is best left for you and your spouse to work out together rather than leave it up to a family court judge. For as much love and good feelings as you have toward the animal at the end of the day it is just that- a pet. It’s sort of like a house that you love or has a lot of affection for. You can sell a house and find a new one to love. However, if you feel on this subject you should know that you can work with your spouse throughout the case to divide the pet work well. Our office is here to help you follow through on your goals.

Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as how your family may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody case.  

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