Divorce and Pets: Who Gets the Dog?

Divorce and Pets: Who Gets the Dog?

A recent New York Times article tells the story of a divorcing couple who amicably divide all community property. The problem was Zoe, a Jack Russell terrier, that “Jim” brought to the marriage. Technically, Zoe belonged to him. In North Carolina, a community property state, pets are classified with “stuff”, to be divided equally between the parties. Three states — Illinois, Alaska and, effective this year, California — have amended their family code to treat pets differently from other types of marital assets.

The divorce lawyer explained that pets are treated in the same way as TVs, furniture and cars. Zoe belonged to Jim like any of the other assets he had brought into the marriage. Jim and “Bob” had been together for 13 years, married for four. During that time they’d shared the cost of Zoe’s regular vet visits, organic food and treats, the groomer, dog walkers–even her canine psychiatrist.

The author had asked for joint custody of Zoe

Over the years, Bob grew to love Zoe, character flaws and all. “I came to appreciate how she would wake up happy every day, ready to greet the world with her prancing walk. I came to see how cataracts near-blinded her and incontinence shamed her. How could I not love her?”

He asked Jim for joint custody for two reasons. In addition to his deep attachment to Zoe, Bob had also hoped that sharing responsibilities for their pet would help them stay connected. Perhaps Zoe could provide an enduring tie.

Zoe was considered personal property

Jim’s answer was “no.” His lawyer advised him that Zoe was considered personal property and he alone could determine her future. For this reason, Bob was sitting in his lawyer’s office, contemplating paying $16,000 for joint custody. His legal team had examined other state laws and come up with a proposed dollar amount for Zoe’s shared custody.

While Zoe was priceless, $16,000 seemed excessive for an 11-pound geriatric terrier. Heartbroken, Bob signed the separation agreement that listed Zoe somewhere between “electric salt and pepper shaker” and “red bowl” on the property inventory. Then Jim and Zoe drove away.

A few weeks later, an email from Jim: No pets allowed

“Would you be interested in having Zoe full time?” “Yes!” Jim finally disclosed that his new townhouse wasn’t dog-friendly. Although the legal agreement was signed and recorded, Bob took full custody of Zoe. Jim wrote again, making sure Bob knew that he wouldn’t pay for any of Zoe’s care “because I won’t ever see her again.” So much for staying connected.

It’s just Bob and Zoe now. Two weeks shy of 17, Zoe is still chasing squirrels. Bob lost his parents and separated from Jim within a few months of each other. He is grateful for the comfort that Zoe brings.

A lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund suggested a “petnup”

Dog lovers understand what the loss of a pet means to its owner. A petnup is a formal agreement of the best way to avoid custody disputes when a relationship ends. It works just like child support. Options include sole custody, joint custod y and even pet support.

California assemblyman Bill Quirk noted in 2018, while advocating the change in law. “As a proud parent of a rescued dog, I know that owners view their pets as more than just property. They are part of our family, and their care needs to be a consideration during divorce proceedings.” Thanks to Mr. Quirk, since January, California judges have been permitted to consider the wellbeing of the animal, as well as who provided its care, in working out custody agreements.

Pet lovers who fear their animals will outlive them should make provisions in their Living Trusts

People who die before their pets leave stranded animals. In a best-case scenario, a neighbor, family member or friend cares for the pet for the rest of its life. The alternatives? The Humane Society estimates that six to eight million dogs and cats enter shelters annually. An estimated half are adopted, and the rest are euthanized. In some sad cases, after the death of its owner a pet is simply let out the front door to get lost, run over or any of the other horrible fates that befall abused animals.

Consider a Pet Trust

A Pet Trust is a legal document that outlines the continued care and maintenance of domestic animals; it also names new caregivers or directs Trustees to find new homes for pets. A Trustee has a legal duty to carry out your wishes. When naming a Trustee, think about the expense of caring for a pet. Food and visits to the vet can add up. Some owners make outright gifts of cash for their animals’ care. Read our blog about creating a Trust for your pet.

California Document Preparers assists our clients in the preparation of Living Trusts

Our Living Trust portfolio includes a Power of Attorney and Advance Healthcare Directive. Most of our clients are surprised at how easy it is. Schedule an appointment today by contacting us at one of our three Bay Area officesOur dedicated team is helpful, compassionate and affordable.