Dragging Fido and Whiskers to Court - Judges to Decide Who Gets Animal Custody in Divorces

Dragging Fido and Whiskers to Court - Judges to Decide Who Gets Animal Custody in Divorces

It's not like they can take the stand, but they really are family. 

By Marianne Garvey

It’s not just kids who are caught in the middle of terrible divorces. Your furry friend may pay an emotional price too.

While the court system in the past has treated pets as “personal property” in divorces (like a table or a piece of art), some state lawmakers and advocacy groups are changing that, pushing that the law consider the animals well being - and that the couple also act in the best interest of their animal or animals, reports The New York Times.

Recently, “courts have awarded shared custody, visitation and even alimony payments to pet owners,” and starting about 15 years ago, more states began allowing people to leave estates or trusts to care for their still living pets.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers conducted a survey in 2014, reporting a 27 percent increase in pet-custody cases over the five previous years. And it wasn’t just dogs and cats. Court cases where a former couple battled over pets have included an iguana, an African grey parrot, a python, and a giant 130-pound turtle — were involved in disputes.

Alaska was the first state to enact pet-custody legislation, which allows a court to consider the animal’s well-being,” says the NYT report.

Rhode Island is hoping to follow suit.

According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center:

"When a married couple divorces, the question of who gets to keep the pets often arises. Whereas the laws are designed to protect the best interests of human children in divorce (allowing for shared custody, visitation, and alimony), the laws for pets are intended to benefit the owner instead. Under the current law, pets are considered to be personal property, capable of human ownership and control. Courts working under that law only strictly have authority to award a pet to one owner or the other. To grant shared custody or visitation of the couple’s pets would be exactly the same, in the eyes of the law, as having them trade their television back and forth from one week to the next."

Lawyers battling for pet custody have also found that often fighting for a beloved animal is revenge on the partner they feel has wronged them.

“People can get really vicious in divorces, and using emotional attachment to a pet is something they can use to gain leverage,” said one animal advocate.

In one 2013 landmark case in New York, two married women battled over their 2-year-old pup Joey as if he were a child - and the judge treated the case as such.

"A pair of divorcing women are about to fight it out in court over a miniature dachshund named Joey in what will be New York’s first matrimonial pet-custody case...' People who love their dogs almost always love them forever,'" Manhattan Justice Matthew Cooper told the New York Post about his ruling granting the women oral arguments in court for sole custody of the dog.

Prior to the shift in the courts, judges in divorce cases have treated pets as personal property, and divided the house as such. But pets are not couches, and many judges are being convinced that Fido does have a best interest at heart and are considering what that is.

It is believed the shift will pick up across the country in the future, with pets being considered more like children or family members.

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