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  • John C. Whitbeck, Jr.


    John C. Whitbeck, Jr. practices in the following areas of law: Family Law, Divorce, Child Custody, Child Support, Visitation Rights, Adoptions, Spousal Support, Mediation, Arbitration, Relocation Cases, Domestic Violence, Criminal Law, DUI/DWI, Reckless Driving, All Felonies, All Misdemeanors, Juvenile Crimes, Mental Health Law, Civil and Business Litigation, Construction Litigation, Education Law, Election Law, Debt Collection, Consumer and Lemon Law.

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  • Ruth M. McElroy


    Ruth M. McElroy practices in the following areas of law: Family law, Divorce, Child Custody, Child Support, Visitation Rights, Adoptions, Spousal Support, Relocation Cases, Pre and Post Marital Agreements, Domestic Violence, Reckless Driving, DUI/DWI, Juvenile Crimes, Felony and Misdemeanor Crimes, Traffic Offenses, Debt Collection, Civil and Business Litigation. She serves the Virginia Court system as a Guardian ad litem.

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  • Jennifer D. Cisneros


    Jennifer D. Cisneros practices in the following areas of law: Family law, Divorce, Child Custody, Child Support, Visitation Rights, Adoptions, Spousal Support, Relocation Cases, Domestic Violence, Juvenile Crimes, Reckless Driving, DUI/DWI, Estate Planning, Wills and Probate, Trusts, Civil and Business Litigation and Debt Collection.

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Who Gets Custody of the Family Pet in a Virginia Divorce?


Many animal lovers consider their pets to be members of the family. This creates contention, however, when a couple separates or gets a divorce. Pet custody is a big deal for many families going through a divorce, but the courts lack the appropriate laws and precedent to adjudicate these issues. When spouses cannot agree on who should have custody of the fur-children, a judge may decide for them. Some lawmakers in other states are pushing for pet custody laws, while others believe it is a waste of resources to bring these matters to a courtroom. This post explores how pet custody is handled in Virginia family courts.

Dogs and Cats Are Like Furniture.

Under Virginia law, pets are considered to be “personal property,” just like furniture and appliances. In a Virginia divorce, marital property should be divided equitably between the spouses. It is challenging to include pets in this process, since the dollar value of a dog or cat is often insignificant compared to its emotional worth. Unfortunately, spouses have been known to extort the other’s emotional attachment to the pet to obtain a financial advantage in the divorce.

Some states are beginning to move away from the “pets as property” mentality. In 2017, Alaska became the first state to require judges to consider the “wellbeing of the pet” and allows them to enforce joint custody of family pets. State legislatures in Wisconsin, California, and Rhode Island have considered similar bills in the past. Judges in Alaska and Texas have also created visitation schedules for beloved animals.

How Do Judges Handle Pet Custody Matters in Virginia?

Virginia courts encourage divorcing couples to decide on their own who should keep the dog. It is not uncommon for these matters to be addressed in mediation. Some families are able to work out a shared custody or visitation agreement. However, judges have said these agreements are often unenforceable, as there is simply no precedent for upholding this type of arrangement.

If a pet custody battle is brought before the court, a judge may look at the following circumstances to decide where the pet should reside.

  • Was the pet adopted before marriage? If one spouse owned the dog before the couple was married, the dog may be considered his separate property.
  • Who is the animal’s primary caretaker? The judge may decide the person who handles most of the pet’s daily needs (walks, food, grooming, etc.) is the rightful owner.
  • What arrangement is in the pet’s best interest? A dog cannot speak for himself, but the court may consider who can provide the best environment for the pet and who has the time and money to spend caring for the animal. Often, a judge will decide the best home for the family’s children is also the best place for their pets.
  • Is there a history of neglect or abuse? A judge is not likely to allow an animal to remain in a home where he might be abused or neglected. Allegations of domestic violence or animal cruelty will be taken seriously.

Divorce Attorneys in Leesburg, Virginia

Divorce is a frustrating and painful process, but finding the right attorney can help. The experienced family law attorneys at Whitbeck, Cisneros, McElroy P.C. are eager to assist you. Contact our office in Leesburg, Virginia to schedule a consultation.




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Governor Northam’s Executive Order 53 provides that businesses that offer professional rather than retail services may remain open. Our firm is continuing to operate to ensure you and your family have advocates available for whatever legal issue you face. For clients who prefer, we can arrange meeting by Zoom or other video-conferencing. We are also implementing internal procedures to provide a safe environment in the office. Please contact us at 703-777-1795 or schedule an appointment today!