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It’s Fido’s Weekend with Dad: Determining Pet Custody in Divorce

When pet consultant Steven May went through a divorce, he and his wife not only had to settle on a custody agreement for their daughter, they also had to settle on custody of three dogs, two cats, and a parrot. But even though May makes a living dealing with pets, his case is not uncommon; pet custody is becoming a more and more frequent issue in divorce proceedings. In fact, May and his divorce attorney David Pisarra even paired up to write a book called What about Wally?, aimed at divorced couples who “co-parent” their pets, a term borrowed from divorced parents who share custody. Pisarra is himself divorced, and has worked out a complex shared custody arrangement for his dachshund Dudley. When the two lived a long distance apart, they had made travel arrangements for the dog. Now that the two live in the same town, it is easier, but they still have arrangements for every day, holidays, travel, boarding, moving, food, vet care, and more. They usually split costs evenly.

According to Pisarra, pet custody cases have increased in his office by 15% over the last five years. Changing attitudes towards pets and an increased number of same-sex marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships are the biggest factors in this rising issue. According to Ken Altshuler, a divorce attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, society sees pets differently now than they did just a few years ago. He says, “Judges are viewing them more akin to children than dining room sets. They are recognizing that people have an emotional attachment to their animals.” In addition, pet ownership is becoming the norm, and for many couples, pets take the place of children. Silvana Raso, a New Jersey family law attorney says, “People are not embarrassed to fight for custody of a pet today. In the past they might have shied away from it because society didn’t really accept a pet as anything other than an accessory to your life.”

But who gets the pets in a divorce case? Currently, there are no legal standards for pet custody, although Pisarra believes that one day there will be laws for pets just as there are for child custody. According to Henry Gornbein, a divorce attorney who writes for the Huffington Post, some judges refuse to deal with such cases, treating pets just like any other property under the law. However, other judges become involved in the pet custody issue, creating custody and visitation schedules just as they would for children. Like Pisarra, he believes that one day there will be laws governing pet custody. He says, “Some people will spend thousands of dollars fighting over pets. The trend is only going to continue, and increasingly, states will have to figure out how to handle pet disputes.”

For judges who do choose to become involved in pet custody issues, there are guidelines in place, even if there are no actual legal requirements. Unlike child custody battles, the “best interests” of the pet are not really considered. Instead, pets are treated as “unique property,” i.e. property that cannot be replaced (along with artwork and antiques). When there are children involved in the divorce, judges usually rule that the pet goes wherever they go, deeming that arrangement to be in the best interests of the children. However, in cases where children are not an issue, a judge may look at who has been more responsible for the pet in the past. He will look at who has made most of the medical decisions, taken care of the pet more, or paid for most of its bills. Pet owners can also present evidence to the court as to who has been more responsible for the animal. According to Gina Calogero, an animal lawyer who specializes in pet custody cases, the most common settlement is that separating couples share the animal. She’s even seen long-distance break-ups where owners have custody for several weeks at a time or meet at a hotel somewhere in the middle. She reports that in these past settlements, pets seemed “very happy” with the decision.

But no matter what the final decision, Calogero and her fellow attorneys urge separating couples to keep the pet’s best interests in the forefront of their minds, even if this is not the legal standard. Pet mediator Charles Regal urges couples to ask the following question, “What can we both do to help this dog or cat through this transition, and how are we best going to be a part of this animal’s life?” By keeping this question as the most important issue in your pet custody decision, you can come to an agreement that will be fair and considerate to you, your ex, and your beloved pet.


About the Author:

Gary Warren is a family law attorney in the Dallas area with the law firm Warren & Migliaccio, L.L.P. A native of Garland, TX, Gary completed his undergraduate studies at Texas Tech, and then attended the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Lansing, MI. After law school, he returned to North Texas and currently practices divorce and child custody case law. Gary enjoys American history, the Texas Rangers, Dallas Stars, Mavericks, and Cowboys, and teaching Sunday School with his wife and high school sweetheart of 19 years.

Categories: Divorce.

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