Dougherty Tobias Iszard, Northern Virginia Law, P.C.

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Pets and property division

Virginia residents put a lot of love, care and money into their pets, which bring joy to a healthy relationship. During a divorce, however, the issue of who gets to keep the pooch can be complicated and emotionally charged. 

Couples may treat their pets like children, but according to the Code of Virginia, man's best friend is considered the personal property of the owner--that is, the purchaser and/or caretaker of the animal. Thus, under Virginia law, the decision about who keeps a pet after divorce may reflect the division of other property, such as cars. The owner, as defined by law, has the right to pursue legal action in the case of "unlawful detention" of the animal "as in the case of other personal property," so in an unamicable divorce, it is a good idea to establish legal ownership.

The Virginia State Bar notes that during a divorce, state law requires equitable distribution of both debts and marital property between parties. For equitable distribution to occur, the couple must determine the value of their property and then categorize that property as "marital, separate, or part marital and part separate." This property is then distributed as fairly as possible after consideration of multiple, legally defined factors.

If one spouse acquired the pet in question prior to marriage, it would be considered separate property and would most likely stay with the original owner. However, if the animal was acquired after the wedding, it qualifies as marital property. Marital property includes all property (jointly owned or otherwise) "acquired from the date of the marriage to the date of separation." Deciding who keeps a jointly owned pet is tricky unless one party can provide clear evidence that he or she purchased it independently. Generally, the best solution is for the couple to set aside hard feelings and come to an agreement that both fulfills Virginia's legal requirements and takes into account the best interest of the pet.

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