Jonathan Marks, STLMoms: Surging number of disputes over custody of pets

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Margie: Well, divorce may be going to the dogs. There’s a surging number of disputes over custody of pets. Family law attorney Jonathan Marks of The Marks Law Firm is here this morning with what options pet owners have and what the courts can do about this. Good morning.

Jonathan: Good morning, Margie.

Margie: So we’re seriously seeing a bitter battle over the pets now? A little bit?

Jonathan: You do occasionally, that’s correct.

Margie: And the latest in the news is Mandy Moore got divorced from Bryan Adams, a singer, and they’re fighting over, they have six cats and two dogs. She maintains them, but she’s saying, “I can’t afford these pets.”

Jonathan: So it’s real similar as if you had children, instead of, you know in their situation they don’t have any kids, they’re looking at the eight pets as their, you know, their child custody dispute. And as a result of it, she’s finding the expenses and the care to be too much and she’s requesting that he take half the responsibility for taking care of the pets and sharing in those expenses.

Margie: Yeah, and then we have Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. They got divorced, and they have eight pets–dogs–all together, Jack Russell terriers, she wants all of them, but Nick wants a couple of them.

Jonathan: Right, so they went through a similar situation. Again, they viewed their situation as just a custody dispute, which is different than what the law takes a look at it because the law looks at it as chattel, it’s just property to be distributed as opposed to this pet that people are viewing as their child.

Margie: Right, absolutely. So there’s this kind of cute term called the pre-pup. And it’s not really used a lot out there, but maybe in the future this will become something that couples look to.

Jonathan: Sure, it’s a possibility if you know going into a situation that you’re not going to have children but you’re planning on adopting some pets that you might want to look into situations for how are you going to deal with custody if the two of you end up separating, what are you going to do in regards to support, and then maybe even more importantly, trying to figure out if you’re going to carry some form of pet insurance in case there really is a major expense associated with your dog or cat so that you can avoid that big ticket item that you then have to go back to your former spouse and say, “hey, do you want to share in what this expense is?”

Margie: Yeah, in the bi-state, pets, as you said, are still considered property. So what can couples do?

Jonathan: Well, I mean, the easiest way to deal with it is to, as you’re going through the divorce process, is to negotiate and take a look at what’s really important. The first thing I think you have to look at is whether there are children involved in your situation. If there are, and you have a custody situation where it’s not going to be a 50/50 shared custody between the parents, then I think realistically if the children have the strongest bond with the pet, then the pet needs to go with the children. If on the other hand, you’re a single couple, or a no-child couple, and you’re really looking at it from the perspective of who has the stronger bond with the pet, then obviously you really have to sit down and figure out what can you do to negotiate a settlement out in regards to how you end up with that pet that’s more important to you than let’s say maybe the living room furniture, or something in that regard.

Margie: I mean, you could even share custody then? Whether the dog’s going with someone or you’re sharing custody if you don’t have kids?

Jonathan: I think it’s an option, but you know, like any situation, you really have to have cooperation with your former spouse. Would it make sense? If two people really have a great connection to the pet, then absolutely, if you can manage a situation where you’re going back and forth with that pet and you’re sharing in those expenses, then it makes sense. But if you’re just someone that has a situation where you’re getting divorced and it’s not amicable, it’s not realistic.

Margie: Yeah, the State of New York has been the only one really to hop on board with this, right?

Jonathan: Correct. They had a situation in which a couple got divorced and at the end of the day they ended up spending a one-day hearing on determining what was in the best interest of this particular pet. They labeled it a “best interest for all” standard. And what the judge did is he had both of the parents come up there and give their testimony for a day, and they essentially explained to the court why they thought it was in the best interest of this particular dog to be living with them. And the judge then had to make a determination as to what would be in that pet’s best interest.

Margie: Only in New York!

Jonathan: Only in New York! Yes, nothing in Missouri.

Margie: The “doggone” dilemma. Jonathan Marks, thank you so much, we appreciate it.

Jonathan: Thank you.

Margie: For more information on The Marks Law Firm, just head to the STLMoms tab.

You need an experienced divorce attorney on your side.