AP Wire – In most states, Courts see pets as property, especially when it comes to divorce. But couples see pets, not as a sofa to divide but a four-legged fur baby. A mediated agreement can address all of your needs when it comes to your pet and if it’s signed and filed with the Court, it will be enforceable.
Alaska, California and Illinois are among states that have enacted laws giving judges leeway to consider the best interests of pets, not unlike what they do for children. A bill is pending in New York state to take the same approach.
“Someone’s cat or someone’s dog is a part of their family and should not be treated like a piece of furniture or their Honda Civic,” said Sen. James Skoufis, chief sponsor of the New York measure and proud dad to a cat named Ruth, for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Some judges around the country have been taking the approach on a case-by-case basis, but couples are left to the whims of whichever judges they’re assigned should they choose to go to trial.
More laws specifically addressing the interests of pets are needed, he said, because custody issues over furry, feathered or scaled loved ones are far more emotional and difficult to resolve than claims over a set of china or the wedding silver.
In states that haven’t taken the new approach, Citron suggests agreeing at the time a pet is acquired during a marriage whose name will appear alone on registration or adoption papers. That person should pay any costs out of a separate bank account. Such measures are especially helpful if one party is trying to weaponize a pet in exchange for other coveted property.
Memphis divorce lawyer Miles Mason Sr. has seen the worst-case scenario writ large. Several years ago, a couple went to war over their two German shepherds. The wife had taken training to handle the dogs, while the husband had not.
Before the divorce, while on a walk with the husband, one of the dogs bit and killed another dog. The wife claimed it was because the husband failed to give the “stand down” command in German as the dog was trained. During a divorce proceeding, he sought visitation rights. A judge barred him from unsupervised time with the dogs outside the wife’s home, but reserved the right to reconsider if he took the schutzhund training.
Karis Nafte has been an animal behaviorist for nearly 26 years. Two years ago, she started working as a pet custody specialist for couples seeking divorces through pre-trial mediation.
Nafte suggested putting pet custody at the top of divorce negotiations. It can make the rest of the process run more smoothly. So can couples therapy for some.
Marriage therapist Sharon O’Neill has helped couples through divorce in New York’s Westchester County for more than 20 years. In one case, during a joint therapy session, a wife was adamant that she keep the dog, while the husband didn’t believe she cared enough to take responsibility.
“In working with her alone, I came to understand that it had more to do with hurting her husband because she truly believed he loved the dog more than he had ever been capable of loving her,” O’Neill said. “We managed to get to the practical truth that it would be a responsibility she really preferred to live without. We found something else she could ask for in lieu of getting the dog: several pieces of beautiful furniture that she didn’t want to split up with her husband. They both agreed.”
“What we would like to see is to have animals considered in the most holistic way possible,” she said. “Who is the animal bonded to? Who can provide for the animal’s overall health and well-being going forward?”
“The kinds of stress that would be placed on a family related to a divorce also have impacts on the emotional and health lives of animals,” he said. “We’re really largely lagging behind in recognition that non-human animals have emotional lives, have feelings. Even opinions.”