What happens to Spot?

May 21, 2009

For many families with pets, the pets are truly a part of the family.  Unfortunately, the law largely treats animals as nothing more than property.  Despite prior proposals to the contrary, Wisconsin law does not have any special provisions for pet custody.  Divorcing spouses are often unable to agree upon what happens to a beloved pet or pet.  There is no uniform way that Wisconsin courts will handle such a dispute.  As with so many divorce issues, the outcome is going to depend upon case-specific facts.

Even though there are no special provisions in the law, pet custody arrangements may still be enforced by Court order if approved by the Judge assigned to the case.  These are some of the proposed agreements I have seen approved by Courts:

  • Dividing multiple pets between spouses.  This tends to arise in families with more than one cat, and only works well if the pets do not develop separation anxiety due to being apart from one another.

 

  • Having the pet travel back and forth between the parents’ homes with the human children.  This occurs mainly with dogs.  Some parents believe that the consistency of having a beloved dog with a child as she travels is comparable to having one’s siblings with them.  This can be problematic if one parent is not really devoted to the dog, however.

 

  • Giving one spouse the pet, with rights to visitation for the other spouse.

It is important to keep in mind that sharing custody of a pet often entails working out the right to make decisions (such as when it would be appropriate to euthanize a pet), medical issues (are you going to treat the arthritis with prescription medication?) and payments of grooming, boarding or vet expenses.   One can expect to encounter some of the same issues that tend to arise in co-parenting human children.   As a result, sharing pet custody means there must be an ongoing relationship between spouses, even after the divorce is final, and even if there are no children involved.  

Pet disputes are often difficult to resolve even with the assistance of attorneys or mediators.  If negotiation fails, the Court will decide what happens.  However, Courts are often not equipped to decide what is best for pets and will usually simply choose a “winner” – the person who gets the pet.  

In my experience, Judges tend to give weight to the person who has registered a pet, paid the vet bills, or provided the majority of the past care.  Chances are that the person who bore the brunt of the burden of caring for the pet could be awarded the animal as part of the property division.

The law provides no magic solution for couples caught in these battles.  Should the Wisconsin law be changed to provide greater Court authority to determine pet custody issues?

One of the most challenging projects for couples who are splitting up is the division of household items between them.  While the divorce court evaluates property based upon its fair market value, most people going through a divorce are concerned about the replacement value of these items.  After all, who wants to go through life without a working computer, or proper bath towels? 

Fair market value of used household goods tends to be dramatically less than replacement value.  And so the debate ensues.  In my practice, I typically encourage clients to resolve these disputes on their own, with their spouse.   Judges usually would prefer not to hear disagreements about why it is not fair that the wife got the good set of dishes, or why the husband’s tools are worth more than the Precious Moments collection, even when these items are extremely important to the litigants in their Courts. 

If spouses are unable to work out the division on their own, often a personal property appraiser is retained to value the household items.   An appraiser is an expert in determining the fair market value of an asset.  In this context, the role of the appraiser is to go to all of the locations where the personal property is located, view the items, and submit a report itemizing and valuing “the stuff.” 

With the assistance of an appraisal, the question of what things are worth is usually resolved based upon the appraiser’s opinion.  Even if spouses cannot agree upon the division of items, having the valuation issues resolved greatly reduces the amount of time and effort spent on presenting any necessary issues to the Court for decision.  The cost of an appraisal in my area is typically between $300-500.  Although not a drop in the bucket, when compared with the cost of having the fight, it is money well spent.