Joint Custody of the Dog

Judges are accustomed — and willing — to deal with the interests and joint care of children in divorce. Many a divorce sets up children as the battlefield on which Mom and Dad (and their parents and retinue) stomp, posture, skirmish, and lay seige, as they jockey for position with each other and with the court.

What happens when the “children” have four legs? When both the husband and the wife have loved and lavished attention on a cat, or more often, a dog? I empathize with these people.

It’s not at all uncommon for a divorce decree to deal with a pet. That’s not a problem, and if there’s any doubt about who will end up with the cherished dog or cat, the divorce decree should resolve it.

What won’t work, and what will embarrass your lawyer if you try it, is any kind of continuing custodial arrangement for a pet. I know. I did try it many years ago. The judge’s precise words were “I ain’t messing with visitation for a dog. Get that outta there.” So I did.

Judges are historically overburdened. Anything they can do to make their workload more manageable that doesn’t compromise their legal duty, they will do. And no judge I know will allow himself or herself to be forced into the role of enforcing custody or visitation of an animal. Ownership they can deal with, and enforce. Visitation? No.

So what can you do? Most of the couples I see are cooperative, of course, so the most typical solution is to agree together informally, not in the divorce documents, that the one who’s keeping the dog will allow the other spouse to see the dog whenever they wish. “You know you can come see him whenever you want to.”

If you and your spouse are not cooperative, and if your pet is becoming a contentious issue, you could always agree that NEITHER of you will take possession. Agree on some trusted third party who will own your pet and will parcel out time to both of you according to a schedule on which you and the other spouse agree. It’s a tad Solomonic, but it can work if you and your spouse are deadlocked on the dog. I also suspect that it would be a short-lived arrangement. My instincts tell me that, once you get away from the bloody combat of divorce, you may agree on where the dog or cat should live.

I don’t know for sure, because I have remarkably little contact with my clients after they get through their divorce, but I suspect that doggie visitation rights, once extended, are rarely used. We move on. Other priorities intervene. The big brown eyes that gave us such joy become a murky memory. And that’s probably healthy.

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