A divorce lawyer’s take on pet parenting plans, creative solutions to custody disputes and visitation rights.
Earlier this week I was standing in the lobby of my apartment building and witnessed for the first time, a pet custody exchange between two ex-spouses. At the center of the exchange was an adorable chocolate Labrador. The exchange was peaceful, with one ex-spouse handing over the dog to his former partner, along with the dog bed, toys and treats. When I asked the gentleman what had taken place, he explained that it was his ex-spouse's weekend with the pup and that they had a pet parenting plan in place. How creative!
It's no surprise that couples are becoming more creative in pet custody disputes. Legally, pets are not afforded the same rights as a child since pets are considered "property." Since pets are considered "property" there is no "custody" issue to be resolved. So when you and your ex-spouse are in the midst of divorce, what can courts do when dividing this "property" and what part should you play in resolving this dispute regarding your family pet?
Here are some things to consider:
1. Brainstorm a pet parenting plan. Like the chocolate Lab's parents, you too can brainstorm a pet parenting plan that allows you and your ex-spouse to have regular visitation with your family pet. Similar to a child custody and visitation agreement, you and your ex-spouse can agree on who pays for vet bills, who is responsible for visitation travel, and the date and time for regular visitation. Ask your attorney to formalize your pet parenting plan by incorporating it into your formal written divorce agreement. It's important to remember that you and your ex-spouse must agree on these terms before they are formalized in a written agreement. This is important because the courts have no power to make orders regarding pet custody since pets are considered "property." The same custody rights that children are afforded are not the same with your pet.
2. Considerations by the court. If a pet custody dispute exists, then what? If you and your ex-spouse cannot agree on who gets the family pet, the court will step in and make an order for the division of this "property." Unlike a piece of furniture or car, the court may be mindful and sensitive towards the needs of a pet before making an order regarding the division of the family pet. For example, a court may look to who spends most of the time with the family pet and who takes the family pet to the vet and to playdates. The court may also consider who is most closely bonded with the family pet including the relationship between your pet and your children. Since pets are considered "property" a court may also look to the source and date of payment to determine who is the true owner of the family pet. How that is determined will depend on your state and your state's laws.
3. Talk to an attorney, talk to your veterinarian. Pet custody is a real issue, especially now that pets are no longer considered just "pets" but are quickly becoming valuable members of a family. Before you embark on a pet custody dispute, be sure to speak with an attorney in your state. In the event that you establish a pet parenting plan, you may also want to consider consulting with your veterinarian so he or she can give you tips on how to make the transition easier for your pet now that your furry four-legged friend is being shuttled between two households. Like children, pets undoubtedly require a level of consistency between two households.
Pet custody is another issue that adds to the many layers of divorce. The implementation of a pet parenting plan may be something to consider, especially if it helps lessen the sense of loss you may feel and experience during the divorce process.
Caroline Choi is a Canadian expat and family law attorney living in Hong Kong. She’s a Foreign Registered Lawyer at the firm of Oldham, Li & Nie and regular contributor to The Huffington Post.