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Who Gets the Family Pet Upon Divorce?

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Recently, the Las Vegas Review Journal featured an article entitled “Spouses Tangle Over Pets in Divorce Court”, written by Carri Geer Thevenot. The article focused on the complications many divorcing couples face when they cannot agree upon who will get the family pet upon dissolution of the marriage.


In a survey completed last February, The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 27 percent of the respondents had noticed an increase in the number of couples who fought over custody of a pet during the previous five years. Most of the time, those disputes involved a dog.


Veteran Family Court Judge, Cynthia Steel, explained that there is no custody law when it comes to family pets; they are merely treated as property by courts in all states. However according to Judge Steel, “to the owner, it’s really not…to the owner, it’s a family member.”


Disputes over custody of family pets pose difficult problems for courts in divorce cases. Brett Turner, a senior attorney with the National Legal Research Group, comments, “courts are often asked to treat pets as they treat children, awarding custody and visitation rights, but such treatment would make divorce cases harder to resolve, and supervising pet visitation rights would be a material burden upon judges.”


Because the law on pet custody is so vague, judges apply different methods in handling this issue in their courtrooms. However, there does seem to be a common consensus on the best way to ensure pet custody. The answer: Put it in a prenuptial agreement. A written agreement regarding pet ownership drafted either before the couple marries or before they purchase a pet is the most reliable way to guarantee pet custody. Family Law Attorney, Stacy Rocheleau puts it simply, “anything you care about, put it in a prenup.”


Other judges have decided pet custody differently. In a divorce action from early 2014, the couple had two dogs, but both spouses wanted custody of the same one. The husband had purchased the dog with community money but the wife claimed he had given it to her as a gift. When they couldn’t reach an agreement, Judge Cheryl Moss decided to hear testimony to help her decide who owned the pet.


In a different case, another judge, Honorable Gloria O’Malley, ordered that the family pet would go back and forth with the couple’s children, between the two households. She reasoned that the dog was a “common denominator that would bind the children to both houses equally.” Although these judges decided to hold mock custody hearing to determine pet custody, the law does not require this.


While recent trends seem to show judges taking extra steps to determine pet custody, the most surefire way to secure pet custody is in a prenuptial agreement. Ms. Rochealeau advised, “the judge doesn’t care about the dog or the cat like you care about the dog or the cat…judges would rather deal with more substantive issues.”


Are you interested in drafting a prenuptial agreement to protect your assets and potentially your beloved family pet? Are you in the midst of a divorce and experiencing problems with your spouse, regarding child custody, child support, maintenance, equitable distribution, or even pet custody? If you need help properly addressing all of your issues and concerns, and would like to speak to a respected and experienced Long Island Matrimonial Attorney, please contact the offices of Jay D. Raxenberg. Call (516) 491-0565 or toll

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