Sometimes the clearest and simplest laws need to be revisited because they produce unjust and unacceptable outcomes. This is certainly the case when it comes to determining custody of a companion animal upon the breakup of pet parents. The traditional law that exists in every state couldn't be clearer. Pets are viewed as property. As such, they go to the party who can demonstrate proof of purchase or adoption. This black and white analysis though, utterly fails to consider what might be best for the pet. The result of this simplistic, and in my view, antiquated framework, is all too often a reduced quality of life for voiceless animals involved.
Over the course of the past few years, a handful of enlightened judges have begun contemplating the "best interests" of the pets when deciding a custody dispute. There are also a few state legislators floating the idea of changing the law to require consideration the pets' best interests when determining custody. Sweeping changes in the law, however, often take many years. In the meantime, it is up to responsible pet parents everywhere to work out custody issues ahead of time, within a love contract.
A love contract is an evolved variation of a pre-nuptial, post-nuptial or cohabitation Agreement that deals with any relationship issues beyond splitting property upon a breakup. There are several crucial steps to creating an effective pet clause within one's love contract:
- Examine the nature and quality of each pet parent's relationship to existing pets. Who provides more exercise, stimulation and affection? Who arranges needed medical care and grooming? Who provides for socialization and facilitates pet friendships? Who takes the lead in ensuring that a pet's optimal nutritional needs are met? Here, we look at who feeds the pet unhealthy table scraps; who looks to save a few dollars by buying cheap pet food; and who buys filtered water for the human members of the family yet gives the pets tap water to drink? Who best promotes the pet's self-esteem by speaking in more positive and encouraging tones? Who ensures that a pet has proper outerwear and footwear for cold weather outings? (If you think any of this is silly, please relinquish your future custody claims now).
Some time and effort spent dealing with these pet custody issues on the front end, can help ensure that your precious pet isn't traumatized in the event of a breakup.
Ann Margaret Carrozza is an Estate Planning Attorney who served as a New York State Assemblywoman. She is a frequent contributor to television and print media outlets.