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Who Gets Custody... of the Pets?

When a long-term relationship or marriage ends, most custody arrangements rightly lean toward offering something like a 50/50 timeshare between parents. Of course sometimes negotiations between the parties involved collapse into messy, epic custody battles, with partners battling it out for more time or more visitation – one of the exes may even fight to have sole custody, so that visitation by their former partner is minimal or nonexistent.

Yes, I’m talking about pets here. And according to the Associated Press, divorce lawyers have been seeing a surge in pet custody cases over the past ten years. Apparently more and more people aren’t willing to walk away from Fido without a fight.

In a 2006 survey by the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a quarter of respondents said pet custody cases had increased noticeably since 2001. The academy is due for another survey, but there is no doubt such cases have grown steadily since then, said Ken Altshuler of Portland, Maine, a divorce attorney and AAML president….

…Pets are considered property in every state in the country. For years, they have been divvied up like furniture during divorce proceedings. But times are changing.

“Judges are viewing them more akin to children than dining room sets. They are recognizing that people have an emotional attachment to their animals,” Altshuler said.

So it seems clear we’ve officially entered the age of Pet Custody Wars.

And though some may dismiss it as trivial, to others the matter is as serious as it would be if a human child were involved. Couples can and do spend thousands of dollars and put themselves through untold mental and emotional strain trying to secure custody of a once-shared pet. This is one facet of the reality of modern divorce now, it seems.

But should they?

It’s apparent to me – and to most long-time pet owners – that animals typically attach themselves to one person in the household more than any other. They have a “person” (or “master,” if you prefer), and this might not be the ‘head of the household.’ It may in fact be a child in the home. In either case, in my view it would make the most sense for the pet to go with that individual, whoever it is, if only to spare the animal the separation anxiety and distress that would doubtless ensue if they were taken away from ‘their person.’

But you can bet a lot of people don’t feel that way. At all. Maybe you’re one of those people?

In our situation, I kept all the animals with me in what was our marital home, the only home my daughter has ever known. Of the two of us – my ex and myself – I’m really the confirmed animal person, and I was the one who handled all the grooming and feeding and caregiving and such while we were together. Also, since I have our daughter the majority of the time during the school year, it made sense for the animals to be where she is most of the time. Our pets (and the pets I’ve added since the split) (I may have some kind of dog-collecting disease) are not just a source of affection and companionship, but a source of *stability* as well, and though my ex and I never discussed it outright, I think we’d both agree that having the pets stay with our daughter in her primary residence lent her a sense of solidity and security while she was adjusting to life post-split, which is definitely something for divorcing parents with pets to consider.

What factors do YOU think should be considered relative to pets and who gets custody? How would you – or how have you, if you’ve gone through a split involving pets – handle the issue of pet custody? Do you think who gets custody of pets is an important issue? Would you fight for custody of your pets?

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More of me on Sweetney & Spice:
Does Your Marriage Have an Expiration Date?
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Divorce
Do Parents Have the Right to be Happy?

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