When couples divorce, two of the most complex issues to settle are those involving custody and property settlement. But where these two matters converge is determining who will take ownership of any pets.
Spouses are often surprised to learn that in almost every state — including Tennessee — pets are treated as property to be divided by the courts. This is anathema to those who treat their companion animals as another loved and valued member of the family.
But for the most part, the courts have not wavered in their views, which can add an unfortunate layer of complexity to a divorce. Instead of determining the custody of a beloved pet, the courts focus only on which spouse is the legal owner.
Suppose a husband purchases a pedigreed or pound puppy and brings it home, to the delight of his wife. The registration and paperwork attached to the purchase all list the husband as the pup’s legal owner. But, as with many tasks typically related to children, the wife is the one who feeds the dog and fills its water bowl. She potty trains it and makes sure it gets its annual rabies vaccination and other inoculations.
When the puppy requires obedience training, it’s the wife who signs it up and gets it trained. She takes the dog to the groomer and the dog park regularly.
When they are embroiled in a contentious divorce and both are fighting over the dog, the husband may triumphantly produce ownership papers, thinking it’s a done deal.
But the wife also has her own paper trail. Armed with receipts in her name for veterinary services and grooming and statements from the vet, trainer and groomer, she alleges that it’s she who is the de facto owner of the dog.
Courts may examine all the evidence when determining who walks away with Rover. The wife could wind up prevailing in some instances even though the husband was the initial purchaser.
What won’t happen is that the court will rule on a custodial decision between the parties, declaring that each spouse gets to have the pet with them a certain percentage of the time. That’s just not how it works here in Tennessee — at least, not at this point.
The best resolution may be for the spouses to agree to mediate the matter, as well as their other issues, without litigation.