When couples split, who gets the dog?

04/05/2012 5:00 AM

04/07/2012 7:00 AM

When couples break up, fighting over flat-screen TVs and wine collections is part of the process. But who gets the dog?

Pet-custody issues figure into divorce more often now than even one generation ago. In a 2006 survey of the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, nearly 25 percent of them reported noticing an increase in cases involving pets.

It’s a natural outgrowth of how societal attitudes toward animal companions have evolved: Our dogs and cats have moved from being considered extensions of the family to being part of the inner circle.

“Forty years ago, people were attached to their pets, but they weren’t considered members of the family in the way they are now,” said Chris Johnson, a family-law attorney with the Minneapolis firm Best & Flanagan.

Yet in the eyes of the law, your little Precious Paws is no different from that flat-screen — he’s a piece of property that will be awarded to one side or the other, unless a shared-custody arrangement is made.

“The law sees them as chattel, a piece of household goods, but people care so much about their pets that they’re often willing to pay a huge amount to get them,” said attorney Cathy Gorlin, also of Best & Flanagan. “People will cede $20,000 to a spouse, plus attorney fees, for a pet that could have been replaced for $500.”

But monetary value of a beloved animal is rarely the issue. Gorlin recalls a couple of cases that illustrate the wide variety of paths pet custody cases can take.

In one, separation of all the other property was simple, but who got the Yorkie was a giant T-bone of contention. “There were issues about whether the dog was purchased by one party before or after the marriage, and whether it was a gift, because if a gift is given after marriage, it’s marital property. Mom ended up paying Dad $15,000 to keep the dog, and it wasn’t a young dog.”

People involved in a breakup can also use pets as tools of revenge.

“In one case where the dog was used for breeding, Mom was so mad at Dad that while the dog was staying with her, she had it spayed,” Gorlin said.

Sometimes, breakups can actually benefit pets. Take Jake the Jack Russell terrier, who divides his time between Michael Abata of Minneapolis, who does consumer research for Target, and his ex, John Peterson, an engineer. The two got Jake from a rescue organization in 2006, then decided to go their separate ways a year later. Jake has been shuttling between the two for the past four years, according to the schedule on his very own Google calendar.

“Jack Russells really need a lot of stimulation, so it keeps things more interesting for him,” said Abata. “Plus it’s good for us, because we can travel and go out more when the other one has him. Some people are actually jealous of it.”

Of course, that kind of arrangement depends on amicability between exes, which is not always possible.

Marshall Tanick, Gorlin’s husband, is a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in animal law. He has written about pet custody for dog magazines.

“About 40 percent of households have pets, and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, so it’s fair to say that pet custody is potentially an issue in about 20 percent of households,” he said. Ninety percent of cases involve dogs, 5 percent cats and 5 percent “other” — a category that can get bizarre, such as a couple who had 30 ornate birds.

“We had to divide them in half, by bird type, to make sure everything was equal,” Tanick said.

Family-law attorney Joani Moberg said that while the law is far behind cultural mores when it comes to pets being seen as members of the family, it’s not likely to change soon.

“Given the paucity of court resources as it is, judges are loath to have court time be taken up with something like this when they have 100 child support cases on the docket,” she said. “If you say one of the couple’s issues is pet custody, they might even laugh at you.”

Pet custody is often more contentious when there are no children in the family, “because the pets are the kids,” she said.

“People should think about what’s the best for the dog,” said Molly Feeney, a dog trainer who splits her time between Minnesota and California. “Where will it get the most companionship? Will it be with the original owner but be alone 20 hours a day? If you’re arguing over a TV, well, one person can just go out and get a new one. But people know that animals are close to the heart, and it hurts the most.”

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