Children and money are not the only things people argue about in divorce. Pets, especially dogs, are often center stage and that means pet-owners should not make assumptions about what happens to the family pets in divorce.
Unfortunately for some people, this is not about the pet. They see the pet as a way for getting back at the STBX. For others, it truly is about two people who are both involved in the pet’s life and who both want to stay connected with the pet. It can become every bit as complicated as figuring out parenting but the good news is that you and your STBX can be as creative as you want. You get to craft the agreement that’s going to work best for you.
Joining me for this episode of Conversations About Divorce is Chicago-based attorney, mediator and divorce educator, Karen Covy. You can listen to the podcast or keep reading …
Consider Your Lifestyle
As much as you may want to be with your pet, you need to consider your ability to take care of it. If for example, you’re going to be moving to a house with no yard, or an apartment that charges a pet fee or doesn’t allow pets, then pushing for the pet to be with you even on a part-time basis may not be a smart move. Similarly, if you’re working long hours and aren’t going to be around to spend time with your dog, then is it really in the dog’s best interest to be with you?
You can always negotiate visiting time with your STBX or an agreement that allows you to take the pet for walks.
Animals are bonded to people. “If your dog is bonded to one or other of you, be the adult and let the dog go with the person with whom they have the strongest bond,” said Covy.
Pets Are Property
The main reason you and your STBX should craft your own agreement about your pet is that in the eyes of the law, the animal is a piece of property, no different than the dinner room table, the lawn mower or the piano.
“It sounds so archaic and out-dated and it really is, but that’s the way the law treats it,” said Covy.
Covy does see the law changing and bending as more pet custody issues come to court. After all, judges are human, have pets themselves and can empathize with divorcing couples. Nevertheless, “what people have to realize is the court looks at pets very differently from a child.”
Make An Agreement Outside Of Court
That pets are seen as property in the eyes of the law, means that if you go to court, the pet is mostly likely going to be awarded to either you or your STBX. A judge is very unlikely to rule that you share the animal. So if you really do want to share the pet, then your best course of action is to make an agreement on your own. Keep your pet outside the courtroom.
You could easily model an agreement for your pet after a parenting agreement and that’s an excellent template to use to help you identify all the issues you need to cover.
Covy worked with one couple who agreed that the dog would go with their child wherever. “What they did which was amazing was they not only put the dog’s interests first, but because the dog was really attached to the child, they put the child’s interests first.”
Start Your Negotiations Early
If what happens to your pet is important to you, then Covy advises starting the discussions on this early. That’s because if you leave this until everything else has been resolved you may be suffering from ‘negotiation fatigue’ and be more likely to agree to an arrangement because you want the negotiations to be over rather than because it’s an arrangement you think can work.
Worse than this, is not discussing the pet at all only to discover after your divorce is final, that you don’t agree. Few people want to go back to court or to start another round of costly negotiations with lawyers.
Your Agreement Is Enforceable
While getting a written agreement about your pet will help to avoid disagreements in the future, it can be a double-edged sword. Once such an agreement is part of your divorce agreement, then court does have jurisdiction over the agreement and it does become enforceable by the court, “even though no judge would have made such an agreement,” said Covy.
How Much Detail?
How much detail to put into an agreement is the same dilemma parents face. Too much detail and you risk making the agreement so long that you’ll never refer back to it and that different provisions will contradict each other or make it ambiguous. Too little detail and you risk making it is so vague that it doesn’t provide a safety net for staying out of court.
Covy says it really depends on how well you and your STBX are communicating and the degree of civility between you. If you have a good relationship, then a lot of details may not be needed. If you’re struggling to make decisions even on basic, elementary issues, then you’re going to want details. Covy’s guideline is, “If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist.”
It’s not just where the pet will spend their time that needs to be covered but also everything from sharing food and toys, health care decisions and expenses, and boarding decisions when one of you is traveling.
A key area that your agreement needs to cover is how you will make decisions as to the pet’s medical care and the expenses for treatment. It’s unreasonable, to expect one party to share in the expense, if they don’t feel strongly about the treatment. So your agreement, might grant either party the right to proceed with medical treatment with the understanding that the expense is not shared.
You do also need to cover end of life issues, such as who makes that decision, whether those expenses will be shared and what will happen to the body, such as cremation or burial.