Avoid a Canine Custody Battle
By Maryann Mott
Like many caring dog owners, Stanley and Linda Perkins of San Diego, Calif., dote on their pointer-greyhound mix, Gigi. But in the late ‘90s when the couple decided to split, a two-year canine custody battled ensued, racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees and taking up almost half of the three-day divorce trial.
In an effort to clinch the case for her client, Sandra Morris, a family law attorney representing Mrs. Perkins, decided to use a tactic that worked in several successful child custody cases. Morris shot a day-in-the-life video of Gigi, showing the adopted pooch going for walks, sleeping under the desk and playing on the beach. It worked. A superior court judge awarded Mrs. Perkins permanent canine custody.
Fighting for Fido
The fight over Gigi is just one of a growing number of pet custody cases around the country. Within the last five years, members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) report that pets are increasingly representing a new kind of battleground as couples attempt to work out divorce settlements.
Dogs are often the animals caught in the middle, but the organization’s attorneys say they’ve also handled custody disputes involving cats, horses and even boa constrictors. The spike in cases has to do, in part, with society’s changing attitude toward pets as family members, says Adam Karp, an attorney of animal law in Bellingham, Wash. “It’s become more legitimate to make a claim for sharing a life with a companion animal,” he says. “There’s nothing unreasonable about asserting a deep and profound emotional connection to another being if that being is not a human.”
Recognizing the importance pets play in people’s lives, and to address the increasing number of custody disputes, politicians in Michigan and Wisconsin recently introduced the first bills in the U.S. outlining how divorcing couples, or those legally separating, must handle the placement of animals.
Most pet custody cases involve married couples or domestic partners, but another common situation is where roommates, who are agreeably co-owners, split up and need to figure out an arrangement. Karp says that often takes the form of establishing a visitation schedule or buying out the other person to become sole owner. Roommates and unmarried couples thinking about adopting or purchasing a purebred can avoid future heartache, though, by creating an ownership agreement outlining what happens to the animal if they part ways. You can do this with the help of an attorney or just on your own. If you do an Internet search for “dog ownership agreement,” you’ll find a few examples online. Books covering legal issues for dog owners, like Every Dog’s Legal Guide: A Must-have Book for Your Owner and other titles from Nolo Press, can also provide tips and guidelines for this sticky scenario.
Pets are Property
If you wind up in the middle of a canine custody dispute, you’ll need to prove you’re the legal owner -- not the better caregiver -- in order to win. That’s because pets are considered to be personal property, just like your T-shirt, toaster or television.
Proving legal ownership entails showing that your name is on some, or all, of the following paperwork:
- Adoption application or sales contract If you didn’t save the paperwork, contact your breeder or the shelter for a copy. Also dig through your files for a canceled check or credit card statement showing you paid the adoption fee or purchase price.
- Veterinary records Obtain medical records from your veterinarian’s office. Show that you’re financially responsible for your dog’s ongoing care by producing cash receipts, credit card statements and canceled checks.
- City licensing forms Most cities and counties require that you license your dog annually. Ask for a copy from the department you went through to buy the license.
- Microchip documents If your dog is implanted with an identification chip, call the manufacturer’s registry for the records.
In situations where ownership status is in question, Karp says it’s best to avoid going to court because a judge may not understand the strong connection you share with your pet. Instead, if both of you want the dog, try to compromise early on in the proceedings by having an attorney help you negotiate a private contract for co-ownership or possession. Then ask the court to enforce the agreement.
If you go through a divorce and wind up hammering out legal details, don’t forget about the emotional toll it may take on your dog. Nancy Williams, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Manchester, Md., has had many clients come to her and say, “I just got divorced and now my dog’s a mess.”
Rarely, though, are dogs actually upset because of a person disappearing from its life, she says. Instead, signs of stress -- such as pacing, restlessness and panting -- usually appear because of moving into a new home or losing a canine brother or sister to the estranged spouse.
To reduce your dog’s anxiety level -- as well as your own -- Williams suggests a combination of daily distractions and increased exercise. Three easy ways to reduce this stress include:
- Go for more walks Take your dog for a stroll on a retractable leash for maximum freedom, making sure to provide ample time for sniffing.
- Play hide-and-seek Instead of putting your dog’s meal in a bowl, hide small portions of dry food around the living room for him to find.
- Enroll in a class Positive reward-based training classes are offered almost everywhere in the country and run the gamut from basic obedience to doggie sports.
Canine custody disputes take an emotional toll on both two- and four-legged family members. But, by working out a compromise before tempers flare and making sure you’re clearly listed as an owner on important records before a breakup occurs, you’ll avoid a lot of heartache -- not to mention hefty legal fees -- in the future.
Maryann Mott is an Arizona-based pet journalist who has written for The New York Times, Dog Fancy magazine and National Geographic online.