Who Gets Custody of the Pets?

The number of custody battles fought over pets has grown increasingly in the past decade. While the battles over pet custody have become increasingly common, they’re not all that new.  With 124 million dogs and cats living in U.S. households combined with the high divorce rates, it’s only reasonable the issue of who keeps Fido will creep into divorce litigation.

Technically, in divorce actions, pets are considered property and are divided accordingly.  But considering the role as family member many pets have now assumed, judges are beginning to soften.  The value pets bring to our daily lives is indisputable and the proliferation of animal issues in this area of the law is unavoidable. In fact, legally, the term, ‘custody’ is inapplicable in a dispute over pet ownership.  But our furrier friends have become much more precious, and we’ve welcomed them into our homes and oftentimes onto our beds.

It’s difficult to determine whether involving the courts in this type of dispute is an appropriate progression for society without addressing the additional costs involved.  Court systems are beleaguered by financial constraints for present domestic litigation.  Domestic litigants often complain that obtaining a hearing date is quite difficult.  The delay involved often contributes to the frustration and adds to the desire to just get it over with. To burden this strained system additionally seems unwise or in the least, poorly timed.  Consider also the additional issues triggered if children are involved.  Can a child’s bond with a family pet sway parental custody determinations?

More often, rather than strain the system’s resources, judges will require the parties to reach a settlement as to pet custody and if they’re unable, award custody on a strict property analysis. However, in a country in which pet care is a 50 billion dollar industry, I’m willing to gamble some domestic litigants are unconcerned with the personal costs involved in a pet custody dispute.

Despite the increased costs associated with pet custody disputes and the uncertainty that prevails in most jurisdictions, it is likely pet custody battles will demand a more serious consideration in the area of domestic litigation.  More drastic changes will likely come from state legislatures.  A Wisconsin representative presented, what’s believed to be the first of its kind, a pet custody law for divorcing couples that addressed visitation schedules and appropriate standards to be applied in custody determinations.  Until such guidance is provided, it’s important to realize every step to protect our valued pets.  It will soon become unacceptable to treat Fido like the fine china in a divorce property distribution. As a family law attorney, I advise my clients to consider pet protection documents prenuptial and ante nuptial. There are also various trust documents available to help owners and their pets remain together and to ensure that pets are well cared for.


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