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What Happens to Pets in Wisconsin Divorce Cases?

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Milwaukee, WI divorce lawyer for pet ownershipBy Attorney Max Stephenson

Pet owners can be very attached to their animals, and a growing trend in the United States is to treat pets more like family than property. So, when a Wisconsin couple is facing divorce, the question naturally arises: “Who gets the pet?” When it comes to divorce, Wisconsin state law still considers pets as property, and therefore, they are included in the division of the couple’s assets and liabilities. This means legally, the pet is assigned to one or the other spouse, and since the pet is considered property, there are no court-sanctioned custody or visitation rights.

A 50/50 State

Wisconsin is considered a community property state, which means all marital property in a divorce (or legal separation or annulment) is divided 50/50 between the two partners. As stated above, this normally means the pet will be awarded to one or the other spouse. However, the 50/50 split excludes property that was given as a gift to either spouse separately or property that was inherited separately. Therefore, if the pet was a gift to one of the spouses or, for example, the pet was inherited from a parent, this might be grounds for the pet to be awarded to one spouse over the other.

An Increasingly Pet-Friendly State

In recent years, the view of pets as property has begun to shift in many states. Wisconsin recently joined the ranks of several other states in passing legislation that allows companion animals to be included in domestic violence protective orders. Further strengthening the trend of recognizing pets as more than property, on December 20, 2018, the U.S. Congress signed the Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act. The PAWS Act establishes a grant program to fund organizations who provide shelter and housing assistance to domestic violence survivors who own pets, including but not limited to, service and emotional support animals.

The inclusion of pets in the laws above provides reason to believe that the legal definition of pets as property in Wisconsin may change. In fact, while Wisconsin pets remain legally defined as property, in many cases, judges will “assist” couples who cannot agree in deciding who the pet will live with by reviewing considerations such as the following to determine where the “property” best belongs:

  • Whether the couple has children who are close to the animal and might be affected emotionally by the separation
  • Who bought the pet
  • Whether the pet was bought prior to the marriage
  • Who was the pet’s primary caregiver

Written Solutions

The best way to solve pet ownership issues in a divorce is to avoid them from the start by making an agreement between spouses. A prenuptial agreement prior to the marriage or a similar signed agreement when the pet is brought into the family can spell out the pet’s future in the case of divorce. Couples in Wisconsin should determine between themselves, while keeping the best interests of the pet and any children involved at the forefront:

  • Where the pet will live
  • What, if any, visiting rights the ex-spouses may expect
  • Who is responsible for food, veterinary and grooming bills, and other expenses

Once an agreement is reached regarding pets, it is advisable to put it in writing to avoid future disputes.

Contact our Milwaukee, WI Divorce Attorneys

Getting divorced can be a very difficult, emotional time for spouses and family members. If you are thinking about divorce, you can trust the attorneys at Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP. We have the knowledge, experience, and professionalism to guide you through the process with dignity while assuring you receive the property, custody, and other rights you deserve. Contact our Milwaukee family law attorneys by calling 414-271-1440.





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