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Who gets the dog in a divorce?

Who gets the dog in a divorce?

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Dog with a tennis ball

Dog with a tennis ball

They've both got a dog in this fight. 

In a time when more people have delayed having children and pets are more like offspring, breaking up means worrying about where the dog will live and how the puppy's expenses are going to be paid.

A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found 27 percent of attorneys report an increase in pet custody cases over the last five years. The most desired animal: dogs, 88 percent of the time. Cats were much less sought-after, with 5 percent of cases. Even iguanas, pythons, African gray parrots and giant turtles have been stuck in a custody tug-of-war.

A recent Reuters report  on the emotional world of pet custody cases told the story of a beagle caught in the middle. 

Formosa Hsu and her ex-partner Joseph, who did not have kids, spent years in mediation to decide how to split the time of their little beagle mix Pupineya, whom they had adopted when he was 3 months old.

For Joseph, a 33-year-old software engineer, the idea that he wouldn't see the dog again was the "worst feeling in the world," he remembers. Hsu, 42, a beauty consultant from Charlottesville, Virginia, says she was "devastated."

Finally they struck a deal: The dog would split his time between the two, even though they now live on opposite coasts. Six months in Virginia, six months in British Columbia.

The story quoted Debra Hamilton, a mediator from Armonk, New York, who successfully handled Pupineya's case.

"I tell attorneys who are handling divorces, number one, ask if they have kids. Number two, ask if they have pets," she said. "These days pets are just as important as kids. Sometimes even more important."

There are many factors a court may consider when figuring out who gets custody of the dog, according to family law attorney Jacqueline Newman, in New York City. 

Typically, if there are unemancipated children in the marriage, the dog will follow the same access parental schedule that the children follow, she said.  If the children are spending Tuesday night at dad's, then the puppy sleeps at dad's that night, too.

When the "dog follows the children" notion does not work, a court will first look to whether the dog was owned by one party prior to the marriage. If one person brought the pet into the marriage, the presumption would be that the same person takes it out of the marriage, Newman said.

However, when a pet is purchased during the marriage, then a court may consider who is the primary caretaker of the pup.

"Does one party take the dog to doctor appointments, feed it, take it out on the cold winter nights?" Newman said.  If it is not apparent who is the primary caretaker, then the court could try to determine custody based on the "best interests standard," determining whether one home would be a better environment for the dog to live.

In a child custody case, the children are given an attorney who can voice their preferences as to where they want to live. It is more challenging to provide to the judge input from the dog as to his or her wishes.

Perhaps test the dog's loyalty by seeing who the dog runs to first when called, Newman suggested.

Raising a dog is not an inexpensive endeavor, especially for those paying for a dog walker or doggy daycare. Newman said she is not aware of any law that dictates "doggy support"for the care and upkeep of the pet.  When this is at issue, she asks her clients to prepare a budget of the pet expenses and factor that into any spousal support budget.

Take care not to stress your pet too much with your dispute or you might end up with a bill for doggy therapy, as well. 

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