Avoid a Canine Custody Battle

By Maryann Mott

Avoid a Canine Custody Battle

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.

Ownership Agreements
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.

Emotional Distress
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.

Tags: dog care

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Posted on December 21, 2009

Gina orvieto says: Got the dog back and all my legal fees!

Posted on November 4, 2009

kay says: My now ex-boyfriend bought me a purebred puppy as a christmas gift a few years ago. Although he PAID for her, my name was on the application. The only other thing he ever paid for was her crate. I paid for all registrations, vet bills, food & other doggie expenses. He attended 2 training classes with us in her 24 weeks of training. When we broke up, suprisingly there wasn't any discussion that she was going with me; it was a given! He knew his work schedule and lifestyle weren't compatible with being a single doggie-parent. He was heartbroken to lose her, but I think my pup & I would have been even more heartbroken to lose each other!

Posted on August 2, 2009

Mitchell says: I moved in with my now ex girlfriend a little over a year ago. A few months after moving in together, I decided that I wanted a dog, so I went on the internet and found one. I went alone to pick him up, and brought him home. She took him in to get neutered and had him microchipped while he was there, the vet info was then in her name. I didn't think it was a big deal at the time since she seemed to know that he was mine. We moved out of the house 4 months later, and the dog lived with me full time. I later broke up with her, but continued to let her visit with him, occasionally keeping him overnight. About 2 months ago, she wanted to keep him for a week, so I let her. We then continued to alternate every other week, but still spending most of the time with me. Now she has him and refuses to let me have him back, or even see him. She tells me that everything is in her name, so I can't have him back. I have lots of witnesses that have know that he stayed with me full time from september thru april, before we started sharing, I also have a witness that knows I got the dog for me (her friends grandmother) and several co-workers that saw him at work with me every day until this. Do I have a chance in court, and what documents do I need? I have credit card statements that show where I purchased food and paid vet bills. I already filed with small claims, but I want to make sure I have everything I need when I get there. Thanks

Posted on May 21, 2008

Gina Orvieto says: I am in a two+ year battle over my dogs with an ex as well. My ex and I shared custody and she called me and told me a stray dog mauled them to death at a rest stop! she went on to say she buried them there. Through investigators and depositions it is quite clear they are alive...we go to court in a few months. Want to do a story? It is a good one!

Posted on July 24, 2009

Diane M Wood says: my daughter and now x-boy friend decided to adopt a dog from the human soc. my daughter paid for the dog and has documentation she was the owner. the boyfriend paid apartment deposits and a vet bill. Now the boyfriend wants the dog who is the legal owner and can he take the dog

Posted on May 20, 2008

Alice says: My daughter & now x-bf purchased a yorkie pup. Abt a year after the purchase, they broke up. Within that year, the pup had stayed with our family (3 kids, 1 chow and 2 cats) at least 3-5 days a week. I took on the pup as a new family member. Taking her to her vet appts., walking her, feeding her, etc. When they split up, I was so upset. I practically pleaded with her x to please allow us to take turns for her care. So, this is what we agreed on. The majority of the time we have her which is from two week to 3 months at a time. We keep her until her 'other' owner calls to pick her up! It's been working out fine with the exception that our entire family feels alot of anxiety when we know she'll be going to his home for awhile. We have offered to buy her, but he declined. So we live with how the situation has panned out! Fine with us, just as long as the pup continues to be a part of our lives.

Posted on May 8, 2008

Susan LEVINE says: Erin was a new attorney in family law. The greatest object (?) of contention for her divorcing couple was who would get the dog. The wife (in the presence of others) proclaimed that she was going to admit the dog to the Animal Shelter. Dad, Erin's client (thankfully), reported in court that he could provide people to testify that out of spite, the former wife was willing to put the dog up for adoption (or worse) rather than giving up the pet to her adversary. The court approved Erin's visit to wife's home to retrieve Bailey and relinquish him to the custody of his loving "father."

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