Pet Peeves in Divorce Court: Deciding Custody of Animal Companions

Pet Custody and Divorce
For many of us, our pets are just like children. In recent decades, the question of “pet custody” has become a very real issue in divorce courts around the nation, especially when the break-up isn’t amicable. Court battles over pets can get just as nasty as child custody battles — or sometimes nastier. And it’s not an issue that’s likely to go away any time soon, particularly since courts (and legislatures) are starting to address the issue.

As the law currently stands in New Jersey, the courts consider pets as “property” to be divided during a divorce just like any other marital asset. It is rare for judges to work out any time-sharing arrangement; typically in a judge-decided settlement, one party keeps the family pet. However, when couples opt for private divorce mediation, there is more room to work out some kind of custody arrangement, given that both of you are open to “shared custody” of the family pet.

Willing to negotiate for time with your pet? Here are some factors to consider before making your case:

— Are you prepared to share the animal with your spouse — and can you do so amicably? If you are undergoing divorce mediation, it’s possible an arrangement can be created so both of you can continue to share your pet, even while you live apart. But understand that the effort involved in joint pet custody is no different from the effort required to share children — although as a rule, dogs and cats have much shorter lifespans than children, so at least there’s a time limit involved. Those of you with large parrots, such as macaws or African Grays (average lifespan of 50 years or more) should keep in mind that you’re the exception to this rule when deciding on joint custody.

— If joint custody isn’t a possibility (because of a less-than-amicable split, for example), do you trust your spouse to take good care of the animal despite his or her loathing for you? If you believe the animal might suffer abuse or neglect as a result of your spouse’s anger, then it’s worth trying to obtain sole custody; if not, you may do better to relinquish the dog or cat to your spouse. Chances are, that will make the divorce process go more smoothly. However…

— If you absolutely, positively can’t bear the thought of being without your pet for any length of time, then you’ll need to make the case that the animal belongs with you. Documenting the nature of your time with your pet is probably the best way to do this — that is, detailing how often you and your dog play in the park together, or the way your cat sits on your feet while you’re working, can be helpful. And don’t think the animal’s wishes don’t enter into it, even if your divorce ends up litigated before a judge. If you can show video clips or get eyewitness testimony to show that the animal is more attached to you than to your spouse, the judge may consider that evidence in his or her decision.

CBS News Report – Divorce lawyers: Pet custody cases increasing: