Illinois law changed on January 1, 2018 to include pets when dividing possessions and responsibilities in a divorce. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). Atlanta is the nation's 9th best city for dog owners, according to a 2016 survey from Realtor.com. More than 54 percent of Atlantan households own a dog, according to a study by Realtor.com. Just under half of all Georgia households own a dog, and 55% own either a dog or a cat (or both) according to ASPCA estimates.
Although many couples consider their pets as their children, the law has not generally allowed the courts to consider them as such. In Illinois the courts can now consider the best interest of the animal when deciding on sole or joint ownership in a divorce. The ownership of the animal is decided using the same guidelines used for child custody and/or property division. The law does not apply to service animals.
There are many local ordinances that deal with the number and type of pets allowed in certain Georgia communities. Nonetheless, there are no provisions in the Georgia divorce laws that specifically mention pets. As such there are no specific guidelines for the Georgia courts to use if ownership of a pet is an issue in a divorce.
In my experience, the judges have not been willing to consider the ownership of a pet in a divorce action. I have, however, had several divorces where the ownership of one or more pets was the most emotional issue of the divorce. In those instances the parties either agreed on the ownership or the person with current possession was able to retain the animal.
So if ownership of your pet may become a primary or emotional issue in your Georgia divorce, you should avoid confrontation with your spouse and speak with an experienced attorney. The attorney may have suggestions for negotiating a reasonable agreement with your spouse.
Nedra K. Howard
Nedra has represented clients in matters relating to divorce, separate maintenance, child custody and support, family violence protective orders, adoption, prenuptial agreements, business disputes and litigation, personal injury, property damage, and wills.