Pets—the Unforeseen Casualties of Divorce

When it comes to divorce, issues with child custody are front and center. Lawyers know what to do, divorcing couples know what to expect, and judges will have seen many custody battles in court.

But what about pets?

In the case of Rudy, a German short-haired pointer whose owners are divorced, the agreement was to go back and forth between their two homes every two weeks. But that agreement was informal, and as it turns out, when the former couple raised the subject with their lawyers in Massachusetts, they were told they had to come up with a deal on their own.

In other words, courts don’t really have much to say when it comes to pet custody. And this can be a problem, as approximately 37 to 47 percent of all households in the U.S. have a dog, and 30 to 37 percent keep a cat. In addition, for every 1 out of every 5 American couples who get married in a given year, 2 will divorce.

One can only guess how many pets are caught in the middle of these separations, and at a time when married couples are delaying having children, pets can easily be the immediate casualties of a divorce. This begs the question: who gets custody of pets, particularly cats and dogs?

Law: Pets Are Property

As far as the law is concerned, pets are property of their owners, which may seem absurd given how raising a dog or cat can easily set you back thousands of dollars in veterinarian bills, pet food, grooming services, and so on. But because of the emotional attachment owners place on their animals, it’s common for many soon-to-be ex couples to use their pets against each other. In a divorce where emotions run high and spouses often want to spite each other by using what the other loves most against them, pets become an easy weapon of choice.

Precedent for Pet Custody Rulings

In one case, a New York judge agreed to a hearing to resolve the argument of two divorcing women over their dog in 2013.

In his ruling, Judge Matthew Cooper wrote, “Although Joey the miniature dachshund is not a human being and cannot be treated as such, he is decidedly more than a piece of property.” The ruling was one of the rare times a court expounded on the reasons for treating pets as more than property, making it a significant decision, even if it was made by a lower court judge.

Still, judges like Cooper have refused to arrange joint-custody setups for pets and divorced couples, also turning down requests to hear custody battles over pets in the same way for human children.

Fortunately for Rudy, it didn’t have to come down to that. Despite the dissolution of their marriage, Christine Trinchero and her ex-husband treat their dog as a “shared responsibility,” agreeing to set limits and rules on when to the short-haired pointer switches, texting or calling each other when it’s time to do so.

If you are faced with a divorce, contact us for a consultation. To learn more, call Lyttle Law Firm today at 512.215.5225.