Pet CustodyIt’s conventional wisdom among those who have been through a divorce that every family breakup is difficult, but the most difficult are those in which parents battle each other over child custody. These issues test the mettle of even the most experienced judges, and if not resolved in a way that limits the children’s exposure to animosity, can end up doing long-term harm. But while more and more courts across the land work to minimize family stress and to work toward what is in the best interests of the children, a new issue has been increasingly raised – who keeps the pet after a divorce – and it is testing the court’s patience.

Though couples may insist that their love for their pet is no different from what a parent feels for a child and that the courts should treat it with the same level of importance – the judicial system takes a very different view of the issue. When it comes to the law, animals are property, and they are treated in the same way. Few judges are likely to be willing to expend much time or energy to creating or upholding custody agreements involving “fur children,” so if you can’t reach an agreement on visitation or custody between you and your soon-to-be-ex, the issue is likely to be resolved based on the same equitable distribution rules that are applied to real estate, automobiles or furniture.

In one notable case involving a couple who established a custody arrangement for a dog that one ex-spouse brought back to court for enforcement, the court decided to eliminate the custody agreement entirely, writing that, “Determinations as to custody and visitation lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems. … Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the … protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”

So, what’s the best approach? Some argue that even if the issue is resolved as a property dispute, it should still be resolved by determining what is in the best interests of the animal, and should be based on factors such as which of the spouses is most involved with the pet: which feeds it and spends the most time with it; who bought the pet or brought it into the relationship in the first place; and who takes it to the veterinarian and pays those bills.

In the end, couples who truly care about their pet will resolve these issues in the same way that parents of children do: by deciding what works best for the pet. If you need assistance with your divorce, contact our office to set up an appointment to speak with one of our family law attorneys.

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