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”
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.
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