Who gets the pet after a breakup

Jun 21, 2012 at 4:30 p.m. ET

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a highly expensive pet custody case? This doesn't exactly sound like the love story most of us imagine but all too often it's a common ending.

Man with cocker spaniel

Even if you don't get hitched first, couples turn to pet adoption as a classic "next" step in a relationship. When cloud nine turns into nothing more than a nebulous blur, the only love languages you'll recognize are woof, bark, arf, meow and purr.

For the hairiest of breakups, only a judge and jury can settle the score. Who has the rights to the fur-babies after love is gone? Read on to find out.

Who adopted the pet?

Think back to those happy days when you and your beau decided to adopt what would become the true loyal love of your life. Keep tabs on the adoption process by remembering who did the research, picked the breed, signed the papers and, most importantly, paid the fee. In a world where courts still hold pets as equal value to your chenille sofa or Kitchenaid mixer, the person who physically paid the adoption fees holds more cards in matters of personal property. If you didn't fork over the cash for your canine, don't fret, there are many other factors left to consider.

Who is the primary caretaker?

Does your former flame even know your veterinarian's name, what kind of food the furry kids eat or even how to get to the nearest dog park? If Fido's world revolves around your existence, that makes you the most suitable choice for pet custody, provided your significant other even realizes what's at stake. Once again, money talks so make sure to keep records of all vet bills, purchases from the pet store and anything else related to your pooch's well-being.

Who gets the nonfurry children?

See Spot go — wherever the kids go. If you've already fought long and hard for custody of the two-legged kind, your tail-wagging kids may get to ride their coattails. Even if the courts don't consider the family pet a loving member of your pack, chances are, the kids consider Buddy one of their own. Rest assured that keeping children happy during a separation includes a one-way ticket for your furry friend.

Play nice and shake hands

With the current state of common-law marriages and increasing numbers of divorce cases, terms like pet-support, joint pet custody and pet visitation rights are likely to become household phrases in a court of law. For now, get ready to pay a hefty fee to fight for the rights of pet ownership. When a legal dispute is out of the question, what's a pet lover to do? The only thing humanly possible — stop acting like animals. Having a civilized conversation with your ex may seem less appealing than a bag of fleas but it's important to consider the costs at hand. Think of what's best for your pet by discussing the following topics, hug it out (or not) and move on:

  • Who has a bigger yard for Fido to play in?
  • Who can realistically afford pet expenses?
  • Can you agree to be civil and share custody and/or visitation rights?
  • Be honest with yourself and do the right thing.

More on pets

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How to adopt a pet
What you need to know about pet adoption