Testifying in court, dognapping and joint custody are some of the tactics people use to make sure they keep their pet
This isn’t the kind of tug of war you want to play.
With more than 800,000 divorces taking place annually in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System, couples are not only battling for custody of children — they’re getting contentious when it comes to pets.
When Michelle S.’s 10-year relationship came to a halt, the discussion of who would get their beloved bulldog became a drawn out dispute. “I let him have all of the furniture and left the framed photos behind, but the dog was non-negotiable,” Michelle tells Moneyish. Because neither of them was willing to give up the dog, they worked out a joint custody agreement and sent the dog back and forth between their homes. “We’d text each other, pack up the dog’s things and do a drop off in a neutral place like Starbucks. When things got less friendly, we’d leave each other keys and drop him off at the person’s house when they weren’t home so we didn’t have to see each other,” says Michelle.
Because 68% of U.S. households own a pet, according to the 2017 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, states like Illinois are implementing new laws to help combat complicated separation situations. Judges can to take into account the welfare of the pet when determining ownership — which is similar protocol to the way child custody cases are handled.
Megan Green, certified family law specialist and partner at Los Angeles-based firm FMBK tells Moneyish that pets are often part of negotiations. “One client claimed the pet was given to her as a gift and in her argument she had people come in to testify. In situations like these, I’ve seen various outcomes. After the dissolution, if they purchased the pet as community property, they’re usually able to exercise visitation and joint custody. It might not be formally labeled as such, but they continue to share the pet for the duration of the pet’s life,” says Green.
Susan T., a Portland, Oregon-based professional says, “My fiance was married for 20 years before I met him and when he moved out of the marital home, he left his Corgi Lu with his ex assuming they would agree upon a joint custody arrangement. She ended up hiring a lawyer and eventually a judge ruled that we would have Lu ten days a month.” But even after Susan and her fiance moved cross country from New York City to Oregon four years ago, her fiance is still responsible for Lu’s cost of care the first ten days of each month. “That’s usually when his ex schedules her vacations, so we pay for doggie day care. We also pay for a lot of vet bills, but I don’t begrudge the poor dog a cent and I know his ex loves her and takes good care of her,” says Susan.
But there are ways to facilitate a smoother split if you ask family law specialist and clinical psychologist David Glass. “If someone brings a puppy into the marriage, that pet should be stipulated in a pre-nup as the wife’s or husband’s property should the marriage fail. If a new pet is chosen by both spouses, they also have the choice of creating a post-nuptial agreement and deciding how that “property” should be handled in the event of a split,” says Glass.
Clinical psychologist and couple therapist, Dr. Erin Joyce tells Moneyish, “Seeking the services of a therapist to act as a facilitator and mediator during this sensitive negotiation can be helpful in coming to some sort of mutually satisfactory agreement. A therapist can facilitate both partners getting it all out on the table and increase the likelihood that the issue can be resolved from the get go instead of a chronic source of acrimony during and after the divorce process.”
Since Glass has seen it all, planning ahead or seeking input from a third party can be useful. “There are those who have actually dognapped and there are those who have spent huge amounts of money fighting over who gets custody and who can seek visitation and when,” says Glass. He’s also noticed that childless couples become the most contentious because their pets become their children and often, the emotional ties are as intense as they would be if they were fighting over kids.
In California, sometimes domestic violence is taken into account: While there is no provision for custody of pets and no provision for pets to be shared between formerly married persons, there is a small part of the family code that deals with domestic violence and if there’s a domestic violence restraining order, the judge can award the pet to the person who has been abused. “I’ve learned of couples who have worked out their pet issues in mediation and that is the best way to handle the discord. People should remember that pets become attached to their owners and try to consider what would be in the best interest of their pets,” says Glass.
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