Relationships ― marriages included ― sometimes fail in an epic fashion. Splitting up can take an emotional and financial toll, and if anger or resentment or revenge plays a role, things can get downright biting.
Let’s cut to the chase. Houses can be sold, and most of our property can be divided ― and legally speaking, that includes the family dog. Yep, the laws in every state but Alaska and Illinois still see pets as property that can be sold right along with the couch they like to nap on.
This makes the question of who gets the dog (or cat) a real bone of contention. Because pets are often loved like family members, custody of the dog after a divorce is often hotly contested. Pet parents consider their pets, like their children, to be priceless and irreplaceable. Sometimes, couples can agree on a custodial schedule for the dog ― along with division of assets ― before a divorce goes to court.
However, in the absence of agreement, it will be up to the judge to decide who, if anyone, gets custody of the dog.
Molly Rosenblum, a Las Vegas family law attorney, “has seen it all.” Her firm regularly handles cases in which divorcing couples can’t agree on who gets custody of the family pet.
In one case, she told HuffPost, an exasperated judge ordered the court marshal to take the dog in question to a nearby park and see which parent the pooch ran to. The divorcing humans were warned to not call the dog’s name or stuff their pockets with liver treats ― kind of like tampering with evidence or bribing a witness.
The winning parent was the wife. Her soon-to-be ex-husband got $500 in lieu of custody, and, at least in this case, his howls of protest went unanswered.
Another time, Rosenblum said, a childless couple who were married for seven years wound up in court over Ava, a purebred Doberman pinscher the husband found after extensive breed research and the screening of multiple prospective breeders.
“The dog became focal point of the divorce,” Rosenblum said. “Both sides spent a lot of money on lawyers.”
She subpoenaed Ava’s veterinary records, called the breeder as a witness, and took to the (puppy) mats, so to speak. The case got more complex because the wife had registered Ava as her emotional support animal ― something the opposing side dismissed as a ruse to skirt condo pet rules.
In this case, Rosenblum said, the judge seemed about ready to order the two humans to sell the dog and split the money when the couple worked out an eleventh-hour arrangement to share custody. The agreement specified that Ava would go back and forth on a weekly schedule and spelled out who got Ava for key holidays, how vet bills would be split and which dog food she would be fed at both homes.
“The judge saw Ava no differently than he saw the desk I’m sitting at,” Rosenblum said, “yet she was a child to this couple.”
Some courts have acknowledged the value of the bond between a human child and a pet and work to preserve it. They either order that the pet follow the same custody schedule as the human child or award the pet to the parent who gets the most parenting time with the child. But when there are no children, Rosenblum said, chances are the court will just order a divorcing couple to sell the dog or have one party “buy” it from the other.
Rosenblum says that what’s missing is any consideration of what might be best for the pet: “Our judges don’t care, and the law tells them they can’t care.”
There are movements underway by animal rights advocates to change how the law sees animals so that they’re treated as sentient individuals ― not property ― who are entitled to certain rights of their own. Not only could new laws recognizing animals as individuals spread beyond Illinois and Alaska, but they could also open the door to other interpretations, for instance in veterinary malpractice cases, agriculture and the entertainment industry.
And there may be a new wrinkle: Emotional support animals could be the mechanism that changes pets’ legal status.
“As an avid dog lover myself, it is hard to imagine that someone other than myself might be entitled to my dog,” Rosenblum said. But until pet custody laws come along, that’s precisely what could happen.
Your best bet, then, is to try to settle out of court.