USA Today recently ran a story highlighting the surging number of disputes over custody of pets in divorce. Some have come to labeling preparing for who has or shares custody of a pet in the event of divorce as a “pre-pup.”
While some may think the matter silly or unnecessary, those who love their pets would say otherwise. And the law offers little protection for pets – they are considered property and subject to division but not shared custody plans.
Pets also require a great deal of care that can be expensive, and those needs would have to be addressed – an award of “pet support” perhaps?
Parties do argue over custody of pets. As the USA Today article notes, a court held a full day hearing just to address the merits of how to handle custody of the pet – even though the couple resolved their other issues amicably.
What options do pet owners have? What can the court do?
As with any marriage, putting intentions down in a prenuptial agreement reduces the risk of conflict or surprise. A “pre-pup” would state who gets custody of what pet, if the parties will share custody and in what manner, if the parties will share expenses and in what way, and even if the parties plan on using pet insurance or making decisions to use expensive treatment rather than put the pet down in case of illness or old age.
Couples who do not foresee the issues through a “pre-pup” would have to negotiate upon the filing of the divorce. In this case, the pet could be used as a bargaining chip in ways that children would not; a spouse could extract a high price for sole custody of the pet because the law considers it property, and some pet owners would be very vulnerable. To avoid this, a couple could agree to mediation or ask for a hearing as the couple did in New York and allow a judge to try some creative listening to encourage a settlement.
Foresight and pre-planning are still the best ways to protect your wishes and avoid the unknown, particularly where the law does not treat pets as owners actually view them – as family.
If you have questions about pet custody in divorce, contact us – we can help.