How do you get pet custody after a breakup?

I cannot speak on what the law is in every jurisdiction, but according to Utah (Utah is where I practice divorce and family law), the answers are: 

If by “breakup” you mean the breakup of a marriage by divorce: 

Pets are property, and so they are treated like property, although because they are living creatures they are not treated as a coffee table or money in a bank account would be, obviously. 

And usually pets are not an asset but are more of a liability. In other words, while I can sell a used coffee table and while I can spend my half of the money I was awarded out of the joint marital bank account, owning and caring for a pet costs money. If one spouse is willing to take on the liability associated with caring for a pet and the other spouse is not, then who gets the dog or cat or iguana won’t be in dispute. 

But if both spouses love the dog and both of them want to keep the dog for himself/herself, then who is awarded this particular piece of property can lead to a vicious and expensive fight. We can’t split the dog in half, as we could with money in the bank. But we could award one spouse the dog and then compensate the other spouse with an award of other marital property equal to the value of the dog. That often happens. 

But what about the intangible factors of pet ownership? While I can go out and buy a replacement coffee table if my spouse gets in divorce the one we bought together, it’s not as easy simply to buy a replacement dog. People become emotionally attached to pets and certain kinds of pets (especially dogs, I hear), and that emotional bond is often unique to that animal. Just as losing a child is not “cured” simply by adopting a “new” one, the relationship one formed with a pet is sometimes impossible to replace like one would replace a lightbulb. 

Still, there is only so much a court can do when faced with who gets Fido. What options are there? 

If the court decides that one spouse must be awarded the sole ownership and control of the pet, then the court will usually award the pet to one spouse and award the other spouse marital property of equal value. 

If the court decides that the parties to the divorce will “share custody” of the pet as if it were a child who spends time in the custody of both parents, the court can do that too. The court could order that Fido spends a week with ex-wife, then a week with ex-husband (or impose some other schedule). 

If by “breakup” you mean the breakup of a cohabitant (unmarried) relationship: 

If two people cohabit (that means “live together and have a sexual relationship without being married”), and if during that relationship: 

  • the couple both contribute money toward the purchase of a dog (or cat, or iguana, etc.) so that it’s a joint purchase and they are co-owners, and then the couple breaks up and they can’t agree who gets to keep the dog, then they could go to court to have the matter resolved. The judge could either order the dog sold and the proceeds of sale divided equally between the owners or award the dog to one of the parties and order that party pay the other half the value of the dog. 


  • one member of the couple buys a dog to which the other member of the couple becomes attached, and then the couple breaks up, the other member of the couple has no ownership rights in the pet. 

Had the couple been married when the pet was purchased—even if it was not a joint purchase—then because the couple was married when the property (i.e., the pet) was acquired, the pet is marital property. But when a couple is not married, if one member of the couple purchases something in his/her individual/separate capacity, then that person is the only owner. It’s not “joint” property. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  

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