Pet Custody Cases on the Rise
Divorcing couples have always fought like cats and dogs over child custody in divorce court, but these days it is becoming increasingly common that the battles are actually about who gets custody of the cats and dogs in the home. Members of the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers concur on this point and have reported that divorce lawyers across the nation have seen a steady rise in the number of pet custody cases on the docket that began in 2000, and continues to rise today.
The lawyer’s group has also noticed that increasing numbers of breakups among same-sex couples, civil unions and domestic partnerships have contributed to the rise in the number of pet custody fights. When there are dependent children involved in a divorce, it is common practice for the judge to award custody of the pets in the home to that parent who has the primary custody of the child. When there are no children in the house, and instead the pets are the only “dependents” involved, the problem of pet custody awards moves to the front of the stage.
Unlike dependent children, for the purposes of divorce, pets have been considered personal property in every state in the nation for many years and they have been treated just like household furniture during divorce proceedings. However, society and values are constantly changing in the United States and there has been a shift in consciousness as people are beginning to view their pets as part of the family and not just possessions. As a result, more divorce court judges are recognizing that people can have strong emotional attachments to their animals, and they are now viewing the pets as something a bit closer to children than furniture. In this light, it is no surprise that the number of pet custody cases reaching the courts have by as much as 15% over the last five years alone.
The root of the problem of pet custody arises from the fact that there are really no laws on the books anywhere in the country that even recognize post-divorce visitation rights with animals. The result is that instead of spending a lot of time and money in front of judges and attorneys in divorce court battling over pet custody, more couples headed for a breakup are now working out the details of pet custody and visitation rights by themselves outside of the courtroom.
Although most pet custody contests might be based on affection for an animal, sometimes they can be simple acts of revenge where one spouse uses pet custody to get even for perceived wrongs in the relationship. This problem was compounded by the fact that pets have never been included or protected under domestic violence restraining orders under existing laws in this country. In the worst cases, abusive spouses have used pets to threaten their spouses or even kill the pets to drive home a point. As a result, the laws are changing in some states to afford animals a greater degree of consideration and protection in a divorce. As more jurisdictions begin to address the problem of pet custody in divorce, it is a good bet that one day there will be statutes to better protect for pets on the books in every state andjudges will have definite guidelines to follow awarding when custody.