It may not be the first bullet point in a divorce, but the custody agreements made for dogs, cats and other pets are important enough to rate a form on Legal Zoom. And an article in USA Today last year cited a survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers that found pet custody battles are on the rise. Michele Lowenstein, a certified family law specialist at Lowenstein Brown in San Diego, says it's not surprising that pets have become an important part of a divorce. "You're feeling vulnerable and this is the one individual who gives you unconditional love. That's why it's a big issue. It's the dog who comes to the door to greet you when you come home."
How To Get Custody
Lowenstein explains that however much you love them, pets are treated as chattal in the eyes of the law. "They're no different than your washer and dryer. Courts will not treat a pet like a child." In her 30 years of practicing divorce law, "the parties have been smart enough to resolve these issues," and points out that it's a whole different ballgame when there are children at home. "The pets belong to the kids, so that's where they usually live."
But in a marriage where there are no offspring, or the kids are grown and gone, a variety of issues can arise. Who will have custody of the pets? If there's more than one, should you split them up? Can the non-custodial party visit the animals? Or should custody be shared? "If you never want to see this person again, visitation and shared custody isn't going to work," Lowenstein says. "Somebody is going to have to give up the cat."
Those are the emotionally laden questions. Then there's the question of money. If the animal gets sick, who will pay the vet bills? "My husband and I had a cat who had chemo for 2 ½ years. Not everybody is that crazy," Lowenstein says, adding that she has no regrets. She's had clients make all kinds of arrangements both for custody and for shouldering the medical costs of the pets. "I've seen arrangements where there was a cap on how much money would be spent on the pet," Lowenstein says.
"Most people can come up with a solution. You can do mediation. You can even hire a child custody mediator to assist you," Lowenstein says. But by all means, avoid going to court. "People don't want to spend thousands in legal bills. I tell people courts are overcrowded, pets are treated as chattal and you can't afford to litigate this." Lowenstein says.
Lowenstein's law firm website has more information on pet custody and other issues pertaining to divorce.