Fur Often Flies in Pet Custody BattlesPublished December 15, 2008
"Jade shouldn't suffer because her mother and I can't work things out," explains Riccardo Rainieri who lives on New York City's East Side.
The Rainieri's are divorcing after ten years of marriage. They've amicably worked out a custody and visitation plan with the best interests of Jade in mind -- their 12-year-old golden retriever.
In the eyes of the law, pets are defined as property. Therefore, in divorce cases, a judge's decision about who gets custody of the pet requires no more legal consideration than deciding who gets the barbeque or the Barcalounger.
Circuit Court Judge Amy Williams presides over family court cases in Pinellas County, Florida. She's noticed an increase in pet custody issues since 2002 and has determined custody in cases involving dogs, cats, horses, a pig -- even an aquarium.
"When it comes to pets, there's really no legal equivalent to child custody, so it's best if the couple can work out these issues before coming to court," she explains. "Otherwise, who gets the pet will ultimately become a property issue."
In the Rainieri's case, it may have been easier to come to a reasonable agreement because Jade has been diagnosed with cancer. The couple has set aside their differences to give Jade the love and support she needs during her treatment.
But most couples have a "ruff" time being so reasonable.
In the Midwest, a divorcing couple was clawing over the family felines. The wife claimed the cats ran away, but the suspicious soon-to-be ex-husband hired a private investigator to tail his former love. The investigator captured the woman at home with the cats in question on video. The husband then sued for joint custody in court.
A divorcing duo in Arizona insisted that the judge write into the final orders that along with joint custody of the children, they would also share joint custody of the family cat and all the hamsters.
Even the famous fight over pets. Actress Kirsten Dunst and ex-lover Jake Gyllenhaal made news recently when they were embroiled in a custody battle over their German Shepherd, Lovey.
So, why are more and more couples willing to fight like cats and dogs over the family pet? Consider the findings of a national pet owner survey conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) in 2004.
-93 percent of pet owners would be willing to risk their own life for their pet;
-83 percent of dog owners refer to themselves as "mommy" or "daddy";
-Nearly half carry pictures of their pet in their wallet.
There is some good news for pets in the middle of a break-up.
"Courts are beginning to reject a strict property analysis and consider the best interests of the animal in deciding which party will be awarded custody," writes Joyce Tischler, founding director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, in an article urging lawyers to plan for more pet custody cases.
Along those lines, Williams adds that while custody is not determined on the pet's best interests alone, the court may consider these elements when equitably dividing the property and assets from a marriage.
In a case Williams remembers well, she awarded the family Golden Retriever to the wife, because the husband had purchased it for her as an incentive to stay sober after battling alcoholism.
In the divorce, the husband claimed the dog was his property because he purchased her. However, the wife had cared for the dog almost exclusively. And she hadn't had a drink in seven years. Williams awarded the canine 'property' to the wife.
If you find yourself in a custody battle over a pet, remember that animals are impacted much like children by the stress of a break-up. You need to watch for signs of anxiety, insecurity or confusion. Above all, try to put their best interests ahead of your own.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (www.aldf.org) offers the following advice for those involved in a custody battle over companion animals:
- Seek the counsel of an attorney to advise a strategic approach to a resolution that serves in the pet's best interests.
- Begin to collect information to validate either proof of ownership or primary caregiver status.
- Ask your attorney about alternative dispute resolutions such as mediation or arbitration.