When going through a divorce, the process is typically focused on the “big” issues. For most couples, this includes the division of assets and liabilities, support, and the custody/placement of minor children (where applicable). Most attorneys and judges are well versed in these issues because they are foundational to divorces.
A less common issue is what happens to family pets in the divorce. Are they considered “property” to be valued and accounted for in the division of assets and liabilities? Or are they more similar to minor children, and require a placement schedule for each party to spend time with the pet? According to the current applications of Wisconsin state law, pets are generally considered “property” and will be considered in the division of assets and liabilities. Although parties can agree to share the custody and placement of their pets, it is currently an uncommon practice in Wisconsin and courts are unlikely to approve or enforce an order which attempts to address custody of a pet.
While Wisconsin does not have laws pertaining to “animal custody”, a recent national trend in the law regarding pets may change that. A number of states, including Wisconsin, have enacted laws recognizing the need to include companion animals in domestic violence protective orders, with some going as far as ordering that abusers pay financial support for pets in the care of a victim of domestic violence. Wisconsin Statute § 813.12(4)(a) states, part:
A judge or circuit court commissioner may grant an injunction ordering the respondent to refrain from … removing, hiding, damaging, harming, or mistreating, or disposing of, a household pet, to allow the petitioner or a family member or household member of the petitioner acting on his or her behalf to retrieve a household pet…
Further solidifying this trend in recognizing pets as more than property, Congress signed a law entitled the Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act in December 2018. The PAWS Act provides shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence survivors and their pets, service animals, and emotional support animals. This law recognizes that pets are more than simple property to their owners..
Although Wisconsin does not have any laws specifically granting custody rights to pets in a divorce or family law case, the court can still consider the facts unique to your case. Even though the pet is considered to be property, if there is a dispute as to who receives the pet, some of the factors the court may consider are: who first purchased the pet; was it purchased during the marriage or before; who is primarily responsible for caring for the pet. These are all factors worth considering, and although Wisconsin law doesn’t require family courts in Wisconsin to consider pets as more than property, legislation like the PAWS Act makes it easier for attorneys to argue that pets deserve special consideration in legal actions.
If you have a divorce or family law matter involving a beloved pet, contact the experienced legal team at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC at 414-258-1644 or visit our website at http://www.nkmfamilylaw.com to set up a free consultation.