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When pet custody matters get hairy

According to the 2010 Census, about 70 percent of households in the United States have a pet, and many of these households consider their pets to be members of the family. For that reason, things can get hairy when a divorce or separation occurs and the former couple has to decide who gets custody of the dog or cat.

Traditionally, divorce courts have viewed family pets as possessions. That means they are valued and subject to the property division portion of the divorce, much like the couple's sofa or China set. In rare cases, a pet-loving judge might issue a special pet custody order, but there are no special guidelines like with child custody matters.

Instead, the judge presiding over the case will likely first determine if the pet is separate or martial property. If one of the parties got the pet before the marriage, it will likely be considered separate property and the original owner will be granted "possession" of the pet. But if the couple got the pet during the marriage or with co-mingled funds, it is considered marital property.

In that case, the judge might decide who is the primary caretaker of the pet, much like a child custody case, and a therapist or family members might be called in to testify. But more likely, the judge will only consider the value of the pet and treat it as a possession to speed up the divorce process.

Because judges are often not very sensitive to pet custody cases, they are often handled outside of court through the mediation process. Mediation can be used to settle just about any issue to a divorce or separation, and in recent years, several mediators have established themselves as pet custody specialists.

One pet custody mediator from California said he often encourages parties to treat the pet as a third-party in the process. He says encouraging the parties too see things from the pet's perspective helps them to set aside their own hurt feelings and focus on the best interests of the pet.

Would you consider using a pet custody mediator to settle a pet custody issue? Why or why not?

Source: East Bay Express, "How to Navigate Pet Custody Battles," Elly Schmidt-Hopper, June 5, 2013

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