When cou­ples di­vorce, they can split the house, but what about the labradoo­dle?

The law calls pets prop­erty, but that’s not how cou­ples see them “You hate your ex—I get that—but your pet doesn’t”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CON­TENTS - Ben Stev­er­man

Rudy is a 9-year-old Ger­man short­haired pointer with a re­gal per­son­al­ity and lov­ing own­ers who are di­vorced. The hu­mans in his life agreed to a shared-cus­tody ar­range­ment. Ev­ery two weeks, Rudy trav­els be­tween their two homes in western Mas­sachusetts.

It was an in­for­mal deal, worked out with no help from a di­vorce court. Dur­ing the breakup, Christina Trinchero and her ex-hus­band had brought up the sub­ject of Rudy with their lawyers. “Both of them said, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you with that. You have to fig­ure it out on your own,’” she re­calls.

At a time when Amer­i­cans are in­creas­ingly de­lay­ing hav­ing chil­dren, who gets the pet can some­times be one of the most emo­tional ques­tions raised by a di­vorce. Yet courts have lit­tle to say on the is­sue.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the law sees pets as prop­erty, no dif­fer­ent from a couch or a house­plant. The av­er­age dog or cat has a mar­ket value of zero—and can cost thou­sands of dol­lars to feed, walk, and keep healthy—so it would seem to have lit­tle le­gal pri­or­ity. But emo­tional at­tach­ment can turn a beloved pet into a valu­able bar­gain­ing chip in di­vorce ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Natalie Reeves, a New York-based di­vorce lawyer at the ToniAnn Grande firm and an ex­pert on an­i­mal law, says she has seen peo­ple use their an­i­mals in this way. In bit­ter di­vorces, she says, “you take what­ever an­other per­son loves the most and try to use that against them.” That might mean de­mand­ing the cat, even if the an­i­mal is more at­tached to your ex.

Judges have a lot of dis­cre­tion in how they di­vide prop­erty in a di­vorce. Pet lovers can strengthen a claim by prov­ing they used their own money— earned be­fore the mar­riage—to buy the pet or pay for its vet­eri­nary bills, Reeves says.

In­creas­ingly, some judges will con­sider other fac­tors when split­ting up pet-own­ing cou­ples, such as the best in­ter­ests of the pets or the fam­i­lies that love them. In a 2013 di­vorce, a New York judge agreed to hold a rare hear­ing on a couple’s fight over a dog. “Although Joey the minia­ture dachs­hund is not a hu­man be­ing and can­not be treated as such, he is de­cid­edly more than a piece of prop­erty,” Judge Matthew Cooper wrote. The rul­ing was one of the first times a court had ever ex­plained rea­sons for con­sid­er­ing pets as more than prop­erty, mak­ing it in­flu­en­tial even though Judge Cooper is a lower court judge. The couple even­tu­ally set­tled their dis­pute over Joey out of court.

Judges, in­clud­ing Cooper, have so far re­jected the idea of or­der­ing joint cus­tody ar­range­ments for pets. Cou­ples can hire lawyers to ne­go­ti­ate a pri­vate con­tract, sep­a­rate from their di­vorce, to set­tle ques­tions of cus­tody. In prac­tice, Reeves warns, there’s no guar­an­tee any court will take th­ese agree­ments se­ri­ously. Th­ese deals can also be ex­pen­sive to ne­go­ti­ate and en­force. “Although peo­ple are very emo­tion­ally at­tached to an­i­mals, in the vast ma­jor­ity of cases they can’t af­ford to fight over them,” says Joslin Davis, a fam­ily lawyer based in Win­ston-Salem, N.C., who is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Mat­ri­mo­nial Lawyers.

De­bra Vey Voda-Hamil­ton, a for­mer di­vorce lawyer, now spe­cial­izes in re­solv­ing pet dis­putes out­side court. Agree­ments reached through me­di­a­tion can be very de­tailed. Own­ers might be re­quired to use groomers or dog walk­ers to trans­fer pets be­tween homes, en­sur­ing exes don’t have to see or in­ter­act with each other. Voda-Hamil­ton tells her clients: “You hate your ex—I get that—but your pet doesn’t.”

Dog own­ers some­times scale back cus­tody de­mands when they think through the im­pli­ca­tions of own­ing the pet while sin­gle. “They want the dog, but they don’t rec­og­nize the amount of time and care it takes,” says Voda-Hamil­ton.

Rudy’s di­vorced own­ers didn’t go that far. When it’s time for the short­haired pointer to switch homes, they just text or call each other. It works, Trinchero says, be­cause both she and her ex-hus­band rec­og­nize Rudy as their “shared re­spon­si­bil­ity,” even if it’s pretty much the only con­nec­tion they still have. Trinchero takes Rudy for long walks; her ex takes the dog out pheas­ant hunt­ing. “He’s a mem­ber of our fam­ily,” she says. “We knew the dog was im­por­tant, and we would make it work no mat­ter what.”

The bot­tom line Di­vorce law doesn’t say much about pets, of­ten leav­ing cou­ples in a breakup to sort out dis­putes on their own.

It’s not your fault

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