While pets may be considered property more judges are acknowledging the role pets play in our lives. By developing an expertise in pet custody you can increase the breadth of your practice.
By David T. Pisarra, Family Lawyer
“Your Honor? I think it’s clear that my client is better suited to be awarded full custody. He’s more financially stable, has the type of work schedule that will allow him more physical interaction and has a living situation that is much more conducive to the special needs of this case. Further, he has been more fully involved in each stage of Rex’s development. Some may see Rex as just a dog, Your Honor. But to my client he is so much more.”
Pet Custody Battles are on the Rise
Having represented hundreds of spouses over the years, I can say that I’ve seen couples battling with the same ferocity over the family dog or cat as they do over their children. Because of this sea change, a new area of representation is opening up to family law attorneys amidst a contraction in our industry due to paralegals and DIY online divorce services.
Our thinking about pets has changed over the decades. While man first started domesticating dogs, cats and horses from as far back as 13,000 B.C., it is a relatively recent occurrence that we’ve come to view our pets as members of the family. And with roughly 55% of all households in the U.S. and Canada owning at least one pet, and a host of recent scientific studies proving the benefits that come from pet ownership, there is no question that our furred and feathered friends have ingratiated themselves into our lives. No longer are they an afterthought in the divorce process. As a matter of fact, for many childless couples, who often view their pets as “starter babies,” pet custody is front and center.
The Best Approach to Seeking Pet Custody
While pets are still considered property by the courts, representing a client seeking pet custody demands a more strategic approach than what is found when arguing for the car.
When I was going through my own breakup, which was the basis for my book “What About Wally? Co-Parenting A Pet With Your Ex,” I found the best way to go about this was to substitute “Pet” for “Child.” The reality is that the majority of us own a pet, so the odds are a judge will be a pet owner as well. And while they are bound by the law, they may be more empathetic to the emotional component pets bring to our lives in much the same way they acknowledge the bond between parent and child.
When approaching a pet custody case we want to have access to documentation of involvement in much the same way we would when handling a child custody case. We want to prove that our client has been a more active participant and taken chief responsibility for the care of the pet. We want to compile registration papers with our client listed as the legal owner, veterinary bills showing our client’s financial involvement, and even receipts for training and food. The goal is to show an active participation in the pet’s life in much the same way we would when showing a parent’s involvement in a child’s upbringing.
In lieu of those documents, or in support of them, be prepared to explore the emotional relationship between client and pet as well as the type of living situation the pet will have if custody is granted. If your dog-owning client is moving out of the home he or she shared with a spouse, provide photos of an ample backyard or nearby dog park. If applicable, highlight the fact that your client has a more conducive work schedule and will be more available to the pet. And if your client is seeking primary custody of the children, don’t hesitate to argue the importance of the pet in their lives.
Another option that can prove to be very beneficial for all concerned is the concept of shared custody of the pet. This requires an acknowledgement from both parties that each loves the pet and wants to have an active role in its life. In many ways this will mirror the components found in shared child custody. Obviously, proximity of the ex-spouses is important as is the pair working together as a team. If one pet parent allows Fido to jump on the couch while the other doesn’t, Fido could develop behavioral problems. This also holds true with making sure the same food and toys are available at each pet parent’s home. But what I’ve seen through others, and in my own personal experience as a co-parent of a dog with my ex, is that coming together over a shared love has a way of helping to heal old wounds.
While pets are still considered property more judges are acknowledging the role pets play in our lives. And if you’ve ever represented a pet-owning client you know that in most cases they don’t just toss the family dog into the property mix. So as it is with child custody cases, where we should strive to act in the best interest of the child who often is unable to speak for him or herself, we should employ the same strategies when arguing on behalf of our client’s pets.
By developing an expertise in pet custody you are not only increasing the breadth of your practice but reaching out to an often neglected, but large sector of the population.
Los Angeles-based Family Law Attorney, author, public speaker and newspaper columnist. David T. Pisarra, Esq., heads the law firm of Pisarra and Grist, as well as MensFamilyLaw.com, dedicated to providing support and representation to men navigating the tumultuous waters of divorce.