Carolann M. Aschoff, P.C.

The problems associated with 'pet custody' in divorce

People often have very loving relationships with their pets, especially dogs or cats. The relationship goes back before the dawn of history, when people hunted with dogs and kept cats to control vermin. However, the relationship, which many consider to be as important as that with their children, can prove to be a complication during a divorce proceeding. Many estranged couples both have bonded with their pets and would like to make some sort of custody arrangement much as they would for their children.

However, as a recent article in the Washington Post points out, the courts (as an extension of state laws) regard pets as property and not as the equivalent of people. Your favorite dog or cat is regarded, in the eyes of the law, as being the same as a couch or a television, something to be given to one or the other in a divorce case and not shared. This anomaly in the law exists despite the fact that animal cruelty laws that make it a felony to harm a dog or cat suggest that animals do have some rights.

The matter can get especially complicated when the children, who are subject to custody arrangements, have bonded with the family pet and will suffer distress if they are separated from it.

The problem is that the family courts are not obligated to spend time or energy working on a pet custody plan. Some judges will agree to do so because they are pet lovers themselves, but this is the exception and not the rule.

If the judge in a divorce proceeding does not or cannot arrange for a custody agreement for the family pet, all hope for an equitable settlement is not lost. You have the option of making a private deal outside the court with the help of your attorney. You can determine such matters as primary custody, visitation rights, and so on much as you might with the children. How such a deal might work is entirely up to you and your spouse, however. This is a matter in which common sense and good will must stand in for the force of the law.

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