Pet custody is decided by family law judges if the couple in a Nevada divorce or Nevada legal separation proceeding cannot agree. Dogs, cats, and other pet animals are considered property for the purposes of determining pet custody.
Judges are not obligated to take into account anything more than the pet’s monetary value when determining how to divvy up an estate. But many judges do look deeper and consider such factors as:
- who is the primary caretaker
- who pays for the pet
- who has possession of the pet currently
- what is in the child’s best interest in Nevada (NRS 125C.0035) if the couple has children
In this article, our Las Vegas family law attorneys discuss how judges decide pet custody disputes:
Pets are property under Nevada law. When divorcing or separating couples cannot agree on who gets their pets, the family court judge makes the decision.
Pets that a person owns before getting married typically remain that person’s “separate property” throughout and after the marriage. So if the couple splits up and fights over the animal, the judge would typically give it to the party who owned the pet prior to the marriage.
Pets that a couple buys after they get married with shared funds are usually considered “Nevada community property,” which means that each party owns the pet 50-50. Courts determine pets’ value by taking into account what they cost and whether they are rare breeds or purebreds. Courts then factor in that value when dividing the couple’s community assets.1
In practice, some family court judges do take into account “soft” considerations such as which party is more emotionally attached to the animal and who is the primary caretaker. But Nevada judges are not obligated to do this. There is no “best interest of the pet” standard in Nevada like there is for children.
In many cases where there is no clear owner, family law judges simply award the pet to whomever currently possesses the animal. So if a spouse moves out from the family house and does not take the pet with him/her, odds are the judge will award the remaining spouse custody of the pet.
When a divorcing or separating couple cannot agree on pet custody, the judge may be open to seeing evidence or hearing testimony on the matter. Some evidence that may sway a judge to award a particular party custody includes the following:
- ownership papers or adoption papers that show the name of the owner;
- photographs of the pet with the owner before the divorce or separation;
- eyewitnesses that can testify about who took primary care of and responsibility for the animal, who took the pet to get groomed, to the dog park, dog training, for walks, etc.;
- receipts for pet food, toys, veterinarian services, etc., that show who paid;
- papers that show the owner’s home can accommodate the pet (for example, CCN&Rs that show an apartment may accommodate pets, or square footage big enough for a large dog like a St. Bernard);
- work schedules that show the owner can spend enough time with the dog (cats are more self-sufficient); or
- testimony by an expert witness on animals
If the pet is a service animal, the judge will likely award custody to the party with the medical condition that the animal services.
If the separating couple has children, a judge might also order that the pet remain with the children and travel back and forth between the parties with the children. One Nevada judge believed this would be in the children’s best interest and help anchor them during the transition of divorce.2
Nevada law considers it domestic violence to recklessly injure a spouse’s animal with an intent to harass the spouse. And if the judge grants the victim spouse a restraining order against the abuser, the order can include provisions to keep the animal out of the abuser’s custody.3
When one spouse has had a restraining order taken out against them involving an animal, the judge will likely award custody of the pet to the victim spouse should they ever separate or divorce. Therefore, these restraining orders are invaluable evidence for domestic violence survivors who wish to keep custody of their pets.
The best way to avoid pet custody disputes is to discuss the matter prior to getting married and memorializing the decision in a prenuptial agreement (called “premarital agreements” in Nevada law). Unless the prenup was void or unconscionable, the judge will usually honor the terms of the prenup even if one of the parties contests.4
If a couple acquires new pets during the marriage, the couple should consider updating the prenup. And if they never had a prenup, they could create a postnuptial agreement with specific pet provisions.
Even if couples do not have a pre- or postnup, they should still try to resolve the issue of pet custody among themselves. They may be able to work out a creative solution such as joint custody or a visiting schedule that judges typically do not consider and cannot enforce.
Call a Nevada family law attorney…
Are you a pet parent fighting with your ex over your dog, cat, or other fur-baby? We know what an emotional issue this can be and that pets are your family. We are here to fight for your right to your beloved animal during this difficult time.
- NRS 125.150.
- Carri Geer Thevenot, “Spouses tangle over pets in divorce court“, Las Vegas Review-Journal (December 28, 2014).
- NRS 33.018; NRS 33.030
- NRS 123A.