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Pet Custody

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When your marriage goes to the dogs, and pets are involved, what is the solution?

Couples, especially those who do not have children, adore their pets and often treat them like kids. It's no surprise then that pet custody has been a growing issue in the courts.

In Michigan, where I practice family law, pets are looked upon as property and the judges do not determine pet custody arrangements. I have seen cases where the divorce judgement set forth a schedule for pet custody divided between the ex husband and wife, and the judges actually strike this language from the document, saying that they will not be involved in pet custody disputes. However, there is a trend in other states where the courts will look at pet custody.

Some courts have tried to settle pet custody disputes by making arrangements that are similar to those used in child custody cases. Examples include judgments that outline what days of the week pets will spend with each party, as well as issues concerning medical care and stipulations for pet day care if both parties work. I know that pet boarding is a huge industry, and I have a friend who works at a pet daycare center where there may be up to 80 or more dogs boarded on any given day. It is clearly an important and growing industry.

The laws from state to state offer no consistency; each state seems to view this issue differently. I have had numerous cases where pets were an issue and I have sadly told my clients that they have to work it out themselves. There can be an agreement whereby one party gets one pet and another party gets the other pet, but courts will not spell out visitation issues for pets. An exception is medical expenses, which can be included in a Judgement of Divorce because vet bills, especially when pets are aging, can run into thousands of dollars.

When pets are considered property, another issue surfaces: What is their value? I had a dog for many years, and to me and my spouse, our pet was priceless. In determining its value, the courts will say that it's not the emotional value to the owner, rather it's worth the monetary value to replace the dog. A mixed breed dog will not have a lot of value. A rare pedigree or show dog will have much more value. I have had cases involving show dogs. If they are champions, then there is substantial value. This is an area that is very specific and every case is different.

Some people will spend thousands of dollars fighting over pets. The trend is only going to continue and increasingly, states will have to figure out how to handle pet disputes.

These are some of my thoughts. What are yours?