Marriage is complicated, and so it follows that the considerations in case of divorce are innumerable. The responsibilities of co-parenting and shared property come to my mind first, but it seems that the family pet is wiggling its way in there, too.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers recently released a survey of its members, reporting that 30 percent of attorneys surveyed noted a decrease in pet custody cases over the last three years. Thus more couples are planning ahead to avoid disputes over the family pet.
(Of note, dogs were named in 96 percent of these disputes, with cats and horses coming in a distant second.)
It’s complicated by the discrepancy in the ways people feel about the family pet. While we love them with our whole hearts, the legal system – specifically the judge – considers them more like an asset.
Local divorce attorney Jennifer Cunningham Beeler explained that there is no standard role for pets in a divorce. Their fates are as unique as the families that love them.
“Very often I meet with clients who ask me if there is a sample parenting plan for pets, but there isn’t,” she said. “It really depends on the family when we address the issue of a family pet, especially if there are children involved, and it is up to the two parties to decide how they want to move forward.”
Beeler has litigated divorces in both Lake and Cook counties, but she also holds a certificate from DePaul University’s Center for Dispute Resolution in family and divorce mediation; is a court-approved financial mediator in Cook County; and is a financial and custodial mediator in Lake County. She also serves as a child representative and guardian ad litem for custodial cases.
And she’s worked her magic to benefit a fair share of dogs.
“I’ve had cases where the dog was named on a list of marital property to be divided, alongside Tiffany lamps and designer china,” Beeler said. “But these agreements regarding pets can also be very elaborate.”
In one example, a dog’s owners agreed that the dog was happiest at the vacation home the two parties planned to continue co-owning after their divorce. With help from their attorneys, it was agreed that the dog would travel to the vacation home with whichever party was using it.
While that dog may have made out like a bandit, the relationship between an animal and its owners is separate from the business of the court. Beeler said that the animal is an asset in the eyes of the law. That’s hard to imagine for the fluffy family dog dozing at the end of the couch, but easier when we consider the price tags on horses and exotic fish tanks.
Regardless of the animal in question, the two parties in a divorce must consider how they will assign responsibility for the animal’s medical bills and decision-making in case of illness or euthanizing the animal.
“I can say that judges typically don’t like to deal with issues of personal property in the courtroom because it can be very time consuming,” Beeler said. “They prefer that the two parties work it out themselves, away from the court.
“When we are truly trying to come to an agreement and not be contentious, we can usually work it out so that the pet travels with the children in cases where both households are able to accommodate the animal, the two parents live close together, and they are able to work together.”
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