A “Petnup” Helps Avoid a Bone of Contention
Since the 1897 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, owned dogs have been considered personal property. This may be a difficult concept to understand because dogs, cats and other pets are commonly regarded as family members by their owners. As a pet owner you know that they are usually the first thing you see when you wake up, you have more pictures of your pets than your kids, and most of your favorite family memories involve these four-legged felines and hounds. It’s no wonder we love and think of them as family. In fact, nearly 80% of women and almost 60% of men refer to their pet as their “fur baby.”1
Given the enormous love for our pets, custody can be a contentious issue when divorcing. This is especially true since, in the eyes of the law, pets are considered marital property and are treated accordingly. It is easy to see how ownership (“custody”) disputes have become such a common issue in the negotiation of a divorce settlement. In order to avoid pet ownership disputes, some couples are turning to “pet-nups.” A “pet-nup” is like a prenuptial agreement that the couple signs before getting married to avoid courtroom disputes and future arguments over who will get the pet in the event of a divorce. The agreement often sets out a “visitation” schedule for the person who will not be receiving the pet if a divorce occurs.
Some disputes do unfortunately end up in court and a judge is left to decide the future home of a pet. Laws regarding pets are evolving. Alaska, California and Illinois have already passed laws giving judges leeway to consider the best interests of pets; not unlike what they do for children. A bill is pending in New York State to take the same approach.
In Alaska, California and Illinois, if the pet was acquired during a marriage and is deemed to be marital property, the judge will determine who should be awarded the pet by taking into consideration various factors, similar to factors a judge considers in a child custody dispute:
- Which party is better equipped to care for the pet
- Which party has played the role of primary caretaker of the pet
- Whether there is evidence of neglect or abuse towards the pet
- An individual’s work and personal schedules and how they could accommodate pet care
- Whether children are also involved in the pet custody dispute
To avoid the fate of a courtroom and heartbreaking disputes, a mediator can help with both a “pet-nup” and settling pet disputes. While some believe in joint custody, others may feel that the pet belongs in one home. These are decisions that can be made through mediation. A mediator provides a neutral environment for both parties to express their feelings and help the couple pre-determine the living arrangements for their pet in the event they divorce in the future.