Enlightened divorce professionals like to tell their divorcing clients that, while couples may split and spouses may divorce, parents are parents forever. But what if you are “parents” of a bouncing baby Bulldog or a lively Labrador Retriever?
Does Fido get allocated to just one divorcing person, much like the car, the couch, or the vacation home? Or, does the couple have to create some sort of custody arrangement, complete with a visitation schedule and dog support?
While divorce laws vary from state to state, in pretty much every state right now, the cold hard truth is this: in the eyes of the law, a dog is a piece of property. Period. That means that, in a divorce, the question of “who gets the dog?” is resolved in pretty much the same way as the question of “who gets the Tupperware?” One person gets it and the other person does without.
The Judge Has The Last Word:
The good thing about the law (which can also be the bad thing about the law, depending upon your perspective) is that it does not exist in a vacuum. The law is interpreted and applied by judges. And, contrary to what some people believe, judges are human … and many of them have dogs.
In a ground-breaking case last year, a New York judge presided over a dispute between Shannon Louise Travis and Trisha Bridget Murray, who were fighting in divorce court over their dog, Joey. Shannon had purchased 10 week old Joey as a gift for Trisha a year and a half before they were married. Within less than a year after they wed, Trisha moved out of the couple’s apartment while Shannon was out of town on a business trip. Trisha took Joey with her.
Shannon filed for divorce, and also filed a motion seeking an account of Joey’s whereabouts (Trisha told Shannon that she had lost Joey on a walk in Central Park). Shannon also sought “sole residential custody” of Joey.
Shannon argued that she had been Joey’s primary caretaker and had been the primary provider of Joey’s financial support. Trisha argued that she, too, had cared for Joey, and that he had been a gift to her. Trisha also claimed that Joey slept on her side of the bed.
The judge in the case went through an extensive discussion of New York law surrounding pets in divorce. In the end, he found that “companion animals” (i.e. pets) are something more than just property, but less than children. He therefore held that he would have a hearing in which he would determine what was in the “best interests” of everyone involved.
However, the judge also made it clear that, unlike in a child custody case, at the end of the hearing, one of the women would be awarded Joey, and the other would not. There would be no “joint custody” and no “visitation.”
I wish I could tell you what happened to Joey. But, shortly after receiving the judge’s decision, Shannon and Tracy settled out of court. In the end, they were smart.
What About You?
If you are, or about to be involved in a divorce case, and you are worried that your dog (or cat) will become an issue in it, the best thing you could possibly do is not rely on the court to resolve this issue for you.
Not every judge in every jurisdiction will be as willing to hold a special hearing about your pet as the New York judge was in the case above. What’s more, since most judges are still bound to ultimately treat a pet as property, if you let a judge decide what happens to Fido, you run the risk that s/he will give Fido to your spouse and you will never get to see him again.
Things to Think About When Fighting Over Fido:
If you do find yourself fighting over Fido, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Know Your Judge. Try to discover whether your judge will look at this issue as anything more than a property settlement. For every judge that will hold a special hearing to determine what is in everyone’s “best interest,” there are probably ten others who won’t. If that is the kind of judge you have, you may need a Plan B.
2. Be Prepared. If your judge is willing to hold some kind of “best interests” hearing, you need to prepare your case in much the same way as you would a custody trial. You have prove to the judge that, if Fido is awarded to you, you have the time, the money and the ability to take care of him. You have to prove that you have been actively involved in Fido’s care during the marriage. You also have to consider where the children will be living: if the children are bonded with the dog, chances are that the judge is going to give the dog to whoever gets the children.
3. Decide what the fight is worth. I hate to sound cold and calculating, but do you really want to spend thousands of dollars and months (or years) of your life fighting over the dog? Maybe you do. (One California woman reportedly spent $140,000 fighting for the family dog in her divorce.) Or maybe you don’t.
4. Horse Trade. Again, I know this is probably very politically incorrect, but, if you want the dog and you know your ex wants something else that you have, give your spouse what he wants and take the dog. Even if what you give your spouse has a bigger dollar value than Fido, if you really want the dog, give it to him.
5. Work Out a Deal. Regardless of whether your judge holds a full hearing about what is in your dog’s “best interest” or not, at the end of the day, the judge is very likely (like almost 100% likely) to give Fido to either you or your spouse. There will be no visitation. There will be no joint custody. So, if you and your spouse can find a way to settle so each of you gets to spend some time with Fido, both of you can “win.”
No matter what the law says, pets really are more than just property. But before you dive into a battle royale over Fido, remember that, from the law’s perspective, you are not standing on solid ground.
Try to think about what is really best for Fido, and for the rest of the family. If you know Fido belongs with your spouse, don’t try to take him away simply out of spite. If you want to punish your spouse, fight over the money. If your spouse wants to punish you, try to give him a different vehicle for doing it. Because, in the end, a dog really isn’t just a piece of property. A dog is part of the family.