It is difficult as pet owners to recognize that in a divorce, pets are considered property. We love our pets as much as we love any family member. They are there for us – no matter what. Always happy to see us come home, forever appreciating any and all attention and affection we give them, bringing us joy, and comforting us when we are troubled. We grieve the loss of a pet in much the same way we grieve the loss of a human. How then, can the Court weigh the value of a pet against the value of a sofa, a car, a television, or other items that need to be divided in a divorce?
At my home we have a welcome mat at the front door that says “A Shelter Dog Rescued This Family.” It is a constant reminder that the pets that we have had as family members touched our lives just as much, if not more than, the act of rescuing the pets touched their lives. I could not imagine having to give up a pet to an ex-spouse, knowing that I would never again experience the joy of that pet’s loyalty and love. This recognition encourages me to always think outside of the box when working with couples who have to decide what to do with the family pet. The articles presented in this month’s newsletter provide some good food for thought on how to address what is often a difficult decision, and how to avoid leaving that decision to the Courts.
This issue opens with Pets Are Part of Our Families. Now They’re Part of Our Divorces, Too, followed by Yo dog! Who gets the family pet in a divorce? and concludes with 3 tips to successfully navigate pet ownership during divorce.
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Pets Are Part of Our Families. Now They’re Part of Our Divorces, Too
Time Magazine BY MELISSA CHAN
JANUARY 22, 2020 6:31 PM EST
Paul Giarrusso rarely cries. But the 59-year-old from Rhode Island wept after his ex-wife decided that he could no longer see their two dogs, Marox and Winnie. “It tortured me,” he says. “In our whole divorce, that was the only thing that could hurt me.”
For nearly two years, Giarrusso fought for custody of the pets in family court and then in the state supreme court, spending about $15,000 in legal fees. “I went through hell,” Giarrusso says. The fight was worth it, he says, when a judge in April 2019 said Giarrusso could have the dogs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays every week. When Giarrusso finally saw them again, Marox, a 16-year-old miniature Italian greyhound, and Winnie, a 14-year-old dachshund-chihuahua mix, covered him in slobbery kisses.
“These dogs are like kids,” says Giarrusso, a high school and college sports referee who has no children. “They’re everything to me.”
They’re also everything to his ex Diane Marolla, whose custom-made shower curtain is a grid of photos of the dogs and whose license plate reads Marox 1. “I will compromise everything,” she says, “but I won’t compromise these dogs.”
The custody dispute was unusual enough that it attracted local media coverage, but divorce attorneys say these fights are becoming more common as state courts confront divorce laws that fail to recognize that in ever more homes, not every crucial bond is between humans. In the past three years, three states have changed their divorce statutes to treat pets more as family members than as mere chattel to be divided by couples, like sofas and TVs. Rhode Island; Pennsylvania; and Washington, D.C., have legislation pending that would do the same.
“There’s a perception that animal legislation isn’t as important as other legislation,” says Rhode Island state representative Charlene Lima, a Democrat, the sponsor of her state’s bill and the owner of a 9-year-old Siberian husky. “I think that’s a complete fallacy.” So do divorce lawyers, who say courts are ill prepared to adjudicate pet-custody battles, leading to dragged-out fights. In 2013, when the New York County Supreme Court had to step into a couple’s quarrel over a miniature dachshund named Joey, it acknowledged that changes in the way society regards pets all but guarantee these cases will increase.
“People who love their dogs almost always love them forever,” Matthew Cooper, the dog-owning justice wrote as he considered Joey’s future. “The same cannot always be said for those who marry.”
The couple in Joey’s case eventually reached a custody agreement on their own, but Cooper, in his ponderings, cited several other custody feuds involving dogs, and one cat, that judges had to settle.
In 1897, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizen-owned dogs were personal property, but animals were far less understood at the time. Dogs in particular were kept primarily to make money for their owners through labor or breeding, until America’s transformation from a mostly rural society to an urban one. “They changed from a working animal to our companions,” says Barbara Gislason, a Minnesota family lawyer and the author of Pet Law and Custody.
Nowadays, 80% of owners view their pets as family members, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). More dogs and cats are adopted from shelters, friends or relatives, or taken in as strays, than are purchased from stores and breeders. Nearly all cat owners and more than half of dog owners describe their pets as mixed breeds or mutts.
“All of a sudden, with animals that have no street value, people are pouring in thousands of dollars to save them,” Gislason says. “Now it’s not just about what work the animal is going to do. It’s about something deeper.”
Estimates of pet ownership today range from 56.8% to more than 65% of U.S. households. The higher figure comes from the American Pet Products Association trade group and would mark a record high. Millennials are the majority of pet owners and may be caring for pets the way they would care for the children they’re not having—the 2018 birth rate was the lowest in 32 years. Of 1,139 millennial pet owners surveyed in 2018 by TD Ameritrade, nearly 70% said they would take leave from work to care for a new pet if they could. Nearly 80% of women and almost 60% of men surveyed said they considered their pet their “fur baby.” The number of pets with health insurance jumped 18% from 2017 to more than 2 million in 2018. All of this has fueled a need for veterinarians. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts jobs for vets and vet technicians will grow by nearly 20% by 2028.
One survey of Hurricane Katrina survivors found that 44% of those who refused to evacuate in advance of the 2005 storm that swamped New Orleans cited pets as the reason. This reluctance to leave a deadly situation spurred passage in 2006 of a federal law requiring state and local officials to include pets and service animals in disaster planning, from evacuation scenarios to shelters. Still, people don’t want to be separated from their animals in times of crisis. As Hurricane Harvey floodwaters poured into his family’s Houston home in 2017, Isiah Courtney trudged through waist-deep water with his 85-lb. pit bull in his arms. “I couldn’t leave him behind,” Courtney, 30, says of his dog Bruce, who’s now 4. “I couldn’t let anything happen to him.”
When Giarrusso and Marolla filed for divorce in 2016 after 23 years of marriage, both knew that a judge was likely to split the dogs up. That’s because Marox technically belonged to Giarrusso and Winnie was Marolla’s, and family judges generally assign pets to the owner whose name is on adoption papers or other official documents. But the dogs had bonded, so the couple agreed that Marolla would keep them and her ex would have visitation rights. They even had a plan in case one of them moved out of state: Giarrusso would get the dogs for three months each summer, for a week at Christmas, in February and in April.
The system worked until Marolla, in spring 2017, canceled the visitation arrangement. In court documents, she accused Giarrusso of not properly caring for Marox and Winnie—an allegation he denied. During a court hearing, Marolla said the “final straw” for her came when she went to pick up the dogs from Giarrusso and discovered that Marox was missing. During a nearly two-hour search through the neighborhood, Marolla testified, she was so distraught that she was “puking on the side of the road.”
“It was like a someone-died feeling,” she tells TIME. When they found Marox—safe in the house but shut inside a closet—Marolla canceled Giarrusso’s visitation rights, prompting the court dispute.
“I knew it would be an uphill battle,” Marolla says of her quest for full custody. But the 54-year-old social worker says she only wanted to protect her pets. “I just want these dogs to be healthy and happy until the day they leave this planet,” she says.
In Kentucky, a woman’s attachment to her cats, Beanie and Kacey, landed her behind bars. Lynn Goldstein was jailed for 30 days in 2001 after she repeatedly refused a judge’s order to give her ex-husband custody of the cats. She was caught hiding the felines at a friend’s office. “I would walk through hell and fire for those animals,” Goldstein, who eventually was forced to let her ex-husband take the cats, said at the time.
In 2017, Alaska became the first state to require judges in divorce cases to consider the pet’s well-being, similar to a standard applied in child-custody cases. The provisions, which the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) called “groundbreaking and unique,” allow joint ownership of a pet and the inclusion of pets in domestic-violence protection orders. The bill was the brainchild of the late state representative Max Gruenberg, who as a family lawyer had once handled a custody case involving a sled-dog team. It inspired Illinois to follow suit in 2018 and California in January 2019.
Animal advocates point to science, among other things, in arguing that pets are more than mere property. We now understand that animals have awareness and, depending on the species, emotions and intuitiveness. Dogs understand us and, in their own way, love us—though researchers warn that there is often bias in the way we interpret their behavior; the dog who appears to be offering comfort with a nuzzle may instead be seeking comfort. Other animal behavior is less ambiguous. Elephants appear unmistakably to mourn their dead—even caressing their bones. Crows, jays and other corvids fashion tools from paper clips to fetch food. Octopuses, with their central nervous systems and brains distributed across eight limbs, have managed cunning escapes from their tanks.
“Our views toward animals, the inherent value that they have and all of the ways they are distinct from other forms of property—I think people are becoming more aware of that,” says Cristina Stella, a senior staff attorney at the ALDF.
But passage of new animal-rights laws doesn’t come easily, and opposition has come from unexpected sources. In Rhode Island, opponents of Lima’s proposed legislation include the AVMA, which fears legal repercussions for veterinary workers if pets are given elevated status in divorce court. “While the AVMA and its members clearly love pets and recognize their importance to their owners, we also believe that their current legal classification as property is appropriate,” AVMA spokesperson Michael San Filippo said in a statement.
The American Kennel Club, which registers purebreds, and Michael Forte, chief judge of the Rhode Island family court, also oppose Lima’s bill—currently tabled for further study—arguing that the state is already capable of fairly adjudicating pet issues.
It wasn’t until 2014 that all 50 states had felony laws against animal cruelty. On Nov. 25, 2019, President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill that makes animal cruelty a federal crime. Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said the passage “marks a new era in the codification of kindness to animals within federal law.” At least 34 states let judges include pets in domestic-violence protection orders.
Animal lovers say a change in divorce law can’t be far behind.
When Giarrusso and Marolla married in 1993, neither expected their union to crumble. They also had no idea the fight for their pets would be the most painful part of their divorce. “Boy, was I in for a rude awakening,” Giarrusso says. By the time the legal dispute was over, Marolla had paid $38,000 in legal fees. “I spent my whole savings,” she says, her voice trembling. “It’s gone.” But she finds comfort in her dogs five days a week, and Marolla and Giarrusso agree on at least one thing: courts and naysayers should acknowledge the pain couples endure when neither can bear to part with their pets.
“If you had to go through this,” Giarrusso says, “you’d probably have a change of heart.”
This appears in the February 03, 2020 issue of TIME.
Yo dog! Who gets the family pet in a divorce?
Jan. 19, 2023
You buy them lots of toys, take them for play dates in the park, let them ride shotgun when you’re running errands and have long talks with them about the meaning of life.
But it’s not your children we’re talking about here…it’s your family pet.
That means when a marriage goes bad a family pet can become the center of a divorce dispute rivaling child custody disputes.
What complicates this is that in most all states, pets are only considered personal property and are “divided” like other community/marital property such as a car or a home.
Technically, courts are only supposed to consider the ownership and monetary value of a dog, cat, parrot, snake, lizard or any other companion.
However, many owners don’t think this way and its backed by research that shows almost 40% of dog owners in a divorce did not want to give up their favorite four-legged friend.
But because pets are often loved and treated as family members, custody of the family pet can lead to some heated disagreements in the course of a divorce.
At times, couples may be able to work out a pet custody and visitation schedule as part of a division of assets.
But when that’s not possible, a judge will make the final decision and take the possibility of compromise out of the spouse’s hands.
Considerations for the good of your pet and the good of your family
Pets can endure stress in a break-up just like any other family member. You really should take their well-being into account which may be difficult when everything else is coming at both of you.
To avoid further and unneeded conflict, here are some things to consider when making decisions about your pet during divorce:
The move factor. Pets don’t do well with big changes and moving a pet in the midst of stressful times can turn your doggo or cat into a nervous mess.
If one of you is staying in the family home, at least for the time being, consider that it might be the best place for your pet until other details can be worked out.
The kid factor. Don’t forget that kids can be super bonded to a pet, especially when mom and dad are arguing.
Taking away a pet during separation or divorce can also do damage to a child’s psyche as well as the animal mental state. It’s simple enough to have the pet come along with the child when weekend visits are taking place.
The work factor. If you’re the one who’s gone from sun up to sun down, you need to give that some serious thought as to whether or not that kind of schedule is fair to your pet.
Pets need attention or you could come home to a trashed house as fido shows his disapproval. Your pet needs to be where they can get the most love and attention.
The split-up factor. If you have more than one pet, you may think each one of you can get an animal and everything will be hunky dory.
But not so fast…
If the pets are emotionally attached to each other, splitting them up could also harm them more than the compromise that puts your best interests first.
The spite factor. Do you really want the family pet or are you using it as a way to inflict pain on your spouse?
This is not the time to do that when a life is involved.
Step up and do the right thing when it comes to your pet and pick a different place to inflict pain if that’s part of your agenda (and we hope it’s not!).
California’s Assembly Bill 2274
As it is with so many other things, California is one of a handful of states leading divorcing pet owners into a new era with the recent passage of Assembly Bill 2274.
Authored by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, (D-Hayward), it is designed to make sure the care of a pet is taken into consideration during and after a divorce is made official. California joins Alaska and Illinois who have already adopted similar measures.
Alaska became the first American state in January 2017 to enact custody legislation specifically for pets, allowing courts to take an animal’s well-being into account during divorce proceedings. The act actually describes a pet as a “vertebrate living creature not a human being” rather than a piece of property.
A 2014 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers showed a 22% increase in pet custody hearings in court. Many divorce attorneys also point out that often a spouse attempts to use the animal as a bargaining chip in divorce proceedings.
Prior to passage of AB-2274, state law was somewhat vague but viewed pets as property to be argued over much like the family home when dividing assets.
Because California is a community property state, any community property acquired during the course of the marriage is owned equally and would be divided equally among divorcing spouses. Pets could end up with one of the spouses, with an offset for 1/2 the value (usually not much unless we’re talking about a thoroughbred race horse or something along those lines). Occasionally, pet visitation rights were also established.
Under the new law, rather than being treated as a property item to be divided, the well-being of family pets will be given prime consideration. The new law went into effect on January 1, 2019.
Much like when arguing over the custody of a child, a spouse can now petition the court for sole or joint ownership/custody of the pet based on providing care to the pet.
The law specifically stipulates this will include “prevention of acts of harm or cruelty” and “the provision of food, water, veterinary care and safe and protected shelter.”
The law also now allows for one person in the divorce to request an order that would require one person in the marriage to care for the pet prior to the divorce becoming final.
For example, if one spouse moves out and the other spouse stays in the family home during the divorce proceedings, the spouse who moved out can request that the family pet not be given away until ownership is decided as part of the divorce settlement.
Supporters of AB 2274 included the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the San Diego Humane Society.
But the bill was not without its critics.
The Association of Certified Family Law Specialists was opposed saying that contested divorces already face major court delays, especially when it comes to children.
“By adding in sole or joint ownership of pet animals as a determination courts can make in divorce proceedings, the already backlogged family court proceedings may become even more delayed as judges consider the myriad factors that come into play when making decisions about community property, division and child custody,” says an explanation of the legal group’s position.
Creating a pet custody agreement may be an option
While the laws are slowly changing, the vast majority of states have not dealt with the issue of pet custody beyond defining a pet as an asset.
Couples need to consider if they are willing to give a judge the power of deciding how their pet is “divided” in a division of assets. A better option may be to try and reach an agreement on your own.
Creating a Pet Agreement gives you control beyond what the law or a judge says. You can decide visitation schedules, expenses for things like vet visits, toys, food, litter and so forth, as well as who should be the primary custodian of the pet.
Doing this in advance is also one less bone of contention you’ll have to face that could cost you money if it’s one of the things a lawyer needs to negotiate for you.
Remember that if you are both hardcore about maintaining ownership of your pet, you’ll need to produce vet bills and receipts, witnesses who can testify as to who is closer to the pet, loving photos, and details of your work and home schedules so that the best interests of the pet can be considered by a neutral third party.
How about a poochie prenup?
You may laugh at the idea, but if you enter a marriage while you’re already in a relationship with your pet, there’s no sense in risking the loss of your little buddy if the marriage doesn’t work out.
Yes, the conversation might be a little awkward, but just like many other things in life, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of heartache later on.
You can also initiate a pet prenup agreement (or postnuptial agreement) for an animal that you acquired together.
Consider which spouse works longer and is gone more often, which owner the pet favors and is bonded to, and other factors that may lead you both to a practical solution.
If you’d like to keep things less formal, you can come to some kind of verbal agreement. But it also never hurts to get something in writing before the dog poop hits the fan.
Unleashing some final thoughts
In a vast majority of divorce cases where children are involved, the custody of the dog is usually awarded to the parent who also has primary custody of the children.
But many couples who fight over pet custody are older, with children who have grown and the pets in their lives are extremely important for companionship purposes.
Keep in mind that when a pet is considered property by the courts, if there is a dispute, the animal can be sold and the proceeds from the sale split between the two parties.
More than likely when a judge threatens this, it’s only to spur a couple to quit wasting time and reach an equitable agreement regarding their pets.
But keep in mind, in states where a pet is considered personal property, even if the judge personally has feelings toward the pet, the law says that they can’t care in reaching decisions.
There have also been a few cases where custody of the family pet played a role in determining alimony payments.
Further complicating pet custody issues are when one spouse or the other registers or identifies a pet as an emotional support animal.
Some courts may see this as a ruse, but that doesn’t prevent this type of strategy being played out and can lead to some very interesting exchanges in a court of law.
3 tips to successfully navigate pet ownership during divorce
July 23, 2021
Navigating pet ownership during divorce can be difficult since there are no clear-cut rules in place about what’s supposed to happen.
Almost 50% of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. With 67% of American households having some kind of pet, there’s bound to be some overlap between those two statistics. When you’re going through a divorce, courts will typically consider creating a plan for your children. But pets are considered property, not family – no matter how much you might disagree with that statement!
Because of that, it can be difficult to navigate pet ownership during divorce. Separation usually has a heavy impact on families. Each person will deal with it differently, including children. So, it’s important to keep everyone in mind when you’re trying to determine what’s best for your pet.
There are also some legal considerations to consider, as well as how to keep your pet happy and healthy throughout the process.
Let’s dive deeper into how you can healthily navigate pet ownership during divorce and what that might look like for you and your family.
Put your pet first
First and foremost, your decision about what to do with your pet should be based on their needs and who can meet them. For example, if you’re staying in the marital home and your ex is moving into an apartment, it will be better for your pet to stay somewhere familiar most of the time. Living in a house also usually means you’ll have more space and a yard for your pet to enjoy.
Your goal should be to offer your pet the healthiest space possible. That includes a home that is clean and free of pests. You can keep fleas away by vacuuming the places where your pet sleeps and putting down washable blankets or towels for them to lay on and washing them — and your pets — frequently. If you have more time to do that than your former spouse, the “pet custody” leans in your favor, too.
Of course, your spouse has to be on board with putting your pet first. But, if they’re asking for time with the pet anyway, chances are they care about it enough to think about its needs over their own.
Focus on your family
When there are custody issues with children in court, the judge is supposed to make a decision based on the best interests of those children. While a judge is unlikely to do the same with a pet, you should take the initiative to do that as a pet owner.
If you have kids, it’s important to understand that they’re already going through some major changes. Divorce can impact children in many different ways, causing a slew of emotions that often include:
Studies have shown that pets can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, keeping you calm and boosting your mood. Your kids might need that comfort during your separation. So, wherever they are, you should consider keeping your pet there, too.
When it comes to keeping your pet or having it most of the time, keep your self-care in mind, too. Going through a divorce isn’t easy, even if it’s amicable. Having a furry friend around to boost your mood can make a big difference in how you handle the grieving process.
Consider the legalities
Pets are often viewed as property in a court of law. So, joint custody isn’t an option. Unless you signed a prenuptial agreement about your pet before getting married, it’s unlikely a court will have any opinion on what to do with your dog or cat. A prenup should include things like:
- A basic decision about pet custody
- Visitation rights
- Name(s) of who is responsible for pet medical decisions
- Division of assets to provide for pet’s needs
If you do want to fight for “custody” of your pet, you might be able to convince a judge if you gather enough evidence. For example, if you are listed as the owner on your pet’s registration or adoption papers, that’s a good start. Financial records suggesting you took responsibility for their needs are also beneficial, as well as being able to prove you have a better, more stable home life.
Some states are starting to see pets as more than property, including Illinois where a new law is treating pets in divorce cases more like children. So, even though most states still won’t allow for a pet custodial arrangement, it may not hurt to try if you have convincing evidence that your furry friend should stay with you.
Going through a divorce is hard. Being a parent while going through a divorce is even harder. Navigating pet ownership during divorce? That might be the most difficult thing of all since there are no clear-cut rules in place about what’s supposed to happen.
Determining pet ownership during divorce
Keep these ideas and suggestions in mind if you’re currently going through a divorce. Putting your pet and your family first, should make your decision about what to do with your four-legged companion easier.