“One of the saddest parts of a divorce is a question,” said Seal Beach family law attorney Glen Rabenn. “Who keeps family pets?” It is often a deeply emotional aspect of a divorce and it is difficult to reach a compromise because both parties love the animal. ”
That question faced “Mary Anne” and her husband, “Justin,” who worked together as architects in the eastern United States. Worked – in the past, because “COVID ruined our business and put so much pressure on our marriage that it collapsed,” both explained in a phone call.
“You have been called Anne Landers / Dear Abby from the legal world, and thought you could possibly help us resolve a difficult issue, custody of our beloved little Chihuahua,” said Mary Anne.
The couple’s conversation could not have come at a better time than the day before I discussed these very issues with both Rabenn and lawyer, Barbara J. Gislason of Fridley, Minnesota, who is recognized nationally and globally as a petting zoo.
She wrote a book on this subject for the American Bar Association’s Department of Family Law entitled Pet Law and Custody: Establishing a Worthy and Equitable Jurisprudence for the Evolving Family. She explores the cultural role of animals in our lives, asks important questions regarding our treatment of animals and discusses how the law should be applied in a way that is in the best interests of both humans and animals.
Animals are usually seen as property
“Historically,” explains Gislason, “animals – pets – were considered property, just like the furniture in your home. In a divorce, the courts would look at who paid for the pet and its veterinary bills or registration fees and assigned it to that person, regardless of the degree of attachment that the spouse had to it.
“As everyone who has owned a dog or cat knows, we love these animals, and this has nothing to do with who bought or paid for food and its health care. So when courts split a couple of assets, very sad and unfair results often emerged. But then, several years ago, family court judges – and state legislatures – began to view the family’s pets as more than just objects. ”
The best of the pet?
I lived in the divorce court for 30 years and saw on my own how dealing with custody of the family’s pets can be more difficult than a dispute over custody of children. Thankfully, that is changing rapidly, as three states – Alaska, Illinois and California – allow family law judges to look after the custody of pets in a similar way as with children.
Judges in these states are now obliged to take into account the welfare of the animal and answer this question: What is best for the animal? Gislason states and adds: “It is always best for the parties to avoid a terrible, expensive fight in court and approach custody – and shared custody – with the best interests of the pet in mind.”
I explained it to my readers and asked, “Now imagine in court. The judge has a good judgment on who is awarded the Chihuahua. Attorney Gislason suggests that you consider how the judge will feel after hearing one or both attorneys do the following:
1. One of you will be presented as a nice person who is devoted to the dog and examples of loving care are shown and argue that the other was much less interested in the dog.
2. Will emphasize that his client paid all the veterinary costs of the animal.
3. That the other person ignored or neglected the animal.
4. That your dispute is motivated by revenge. Judges do not reward pet owners in that situation.
“You do not really want that kind of fight, do you?” Both agreed that they did not. “So, how can we solve this?” they asked.
Agreement on animal husbandry and sharing
Glen Rabenn offers a five-step solution:
Have a detailed agreement in writing. Error on the side of being too specific.
2. It should include a schedule – a weekly schedule of custody and indicate who is making important medical decisions or putting the animal down.
Can you take the pet outside your country? Think of the same things as for a child.
4. Do not leave things to chance.
5. If you disagree, state mediation or agree on family members to decide the matter.
Gislason agrees and adds:
“Be civic towards each other and try to talk it through. Sometimes it helps to give up something else that you want in the marriage dispute. ‘I’ll get the dog and you’ll get a mountain bike.
She concludes with this recommendation:
“Encourage family members to lean on the person trying to remove the other person’s dog.”
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