Cus­tody of the an­i­mal a com­mon di­vorce spat

The Washington Times Daily - - Life -

They still fight like cats and dogs in di­vorce court. But more and more they are fight­ing about cats and dogs. Cus­tody cases in­volv­ing pets are on the rise across the coun­try.

In a 2006 sur­vey by the 1,600-mem­ber Amer­i­can Academy of Mat­ri­mo­nial Lawyers (AAML), 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.

If there is a child in­volved in a di­vorce, many judges will keep the pet with the child, at­tor­neys said.

“But what do you do when the pet is the child?” Mr. Alt­shuler asked.

Breakups in same-sex mar­riages, civil unions and do­mes­tic part­ner­ships are among rea­sons pet cus­tody fights have be­come more com­mon, at­tor­neys said.

Pet cus­tody cases have grown as much as 15 per­cent in his of­fice dur­ing the past five years, said at­tor­ney David Pis­arra of Santa Mon­ica, Calif.

He is his own best ex­am­ple. He shares cus­tody of 8-year-old Dud­ley, a long­haired stan­dard black-and-tan dachs­hund, with his ex, who has re­mar­ried and in­tro­duced a “step­dog” to Dud­ley.

Pet con­sul­tant Steven May hired Mr. Pis­arra six years ago to han­dle his di­vorce. Be­sides a daugh­ter, Mr. May and his ex worked out cus­tody of three dogs, two cats and Te­quila the par­rot.

Mr. Pis­arra and Mr. May be­came good friends and of­ten take their dogs for walks in Santa Mon­ica. They also teamed up last year to write a book about co-par­ent­ing a pet with an ex ti­tled “What About Wally?”

Pets are con­sid­ered prop­erty in ev­ery state in the coun­try. For years, they have been divvied up like fur­ni­ture dur­ing di­vorce pro­ceed­ings. 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,” Mr. Alt­shuler said.

“There is a shift­ing con­scious­ness,” Mr. Pis­arra said. “Pets are be­ing given greater con­sid­er­a­tion un­der the law.”

More peo­ple have pets than ever be­fore and they con­sider them part of the fam­ily rather than pos­ses­sions, said Sil­vana Raso, a fam­ily law at­tor­ney with the En­gle­wood Cliffs, N.J., law firm of Schep­isi & Mclaugh­lin.

“Peo­ple are not em­bar­rassed to fight for cus­tody of a pet to­day. In the past they might have shied away from it be­cause so­ci­ety didn’t re­ally ac­cept a pet as any­thing other than an ac­ces­sory to your life,” she said.

When Mr. Pis­arra and Jay Redd (who wrote an in­tro­duc­tion in the book) split up, they agreed to share Dud­ley.

“There is no law that rec­og­nizes visi­ta­tion with an an­i­mal,” Ms. Raso said, so cou­ples have to work it out them­selves.

Reach­ing a pet cus­tody agree­ment with­out a lot of help from at­tor­neys and judges will save money, Ms. Raso said. Di­vorces can cost $1,000 and be re­solved quickly or cost mil­lions and take years.

Pet de­ci­sions of­ten are more ag­o­niz­ing to make than those about mort­gages, credit card debt or stu­dent loans, Ms. Raso said. But if they can be re­solved, the rest usu­ally goes smoother.

Af­ter their 2006 breakup, Mr. Pis­arra and Mr. Redd worked out shared cus­tody, long-dis­tance visi­ta­tion and a new fam­ily (in­clud­ing a bea­gle) in Dud­ley’s life, Mr. Pis­arra said. To­day, they live in the same city, so visi­ta­tion no longer in­cludes flight time.

The two have a plan for ev­ery­day, va­ca­tion and hol­i­day sched­ules; travel ar­range­ments; dog­gie day care; board­ing; food; treats; groom­ing; vet care; mov­ing; and end-of-life de­ci­sions. They split costs and some­times, with things like toys, leashes and dog bowls, buy two of each so Dud­ley has one at each home.

Mr. May and his wife, Nina, (who also wrote an in­tro­duc­tion for the book) sep­a­rated six years ago af­ter 16 years of mar­riage.

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