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?

Under Wisconsin law, parents are required to attend at least one session of mediation whenever legal custody and/or physical placement is at issue, with little exception.  The purpose of mediation is to try to help parents resolve their disagreements without having to go through a full-blown custody battle.  

Most parents are able to reach agreement in mediation, which shields children from much of the emotional trauma a prolonged custody battle brings.  To maximize the potential for success, parents need to be prepared to discuss a variety of topics regarding their children at mediation.  At a minimum, parents should be prepared to discuss the following topics:

  • The legal custody arrangement you are requesting, and why you feel it is best for your child.
  • The physical placement (physical custody) arrangements you want in place and why you believe those arrangements are best for your child.  Be thoughtful about a specific proposed schedule and how you suggest transportation be handled.  
  • A holiday and vacation schedule.
  • Your relationship with your child, the activities you enjoy doing together, your philosophy of discipline.
  • The other parent’s relationship with the child.
  • Your child’s personality, routines, likes and dislikes, friends, teachers, activities, health care providers, etc.
  • Where you work and the hours of your employment.
  • Proposed child care providers when you and/or the other parent are unavailable.
  • How the child will be able to contact the other parent, and vice versa during periods of physical placement.
  • How you are following through with the child’s religious commitment, if any.
  • Concerns you have regarding the fitness of the other parent, including any abusive behavior, drinking and drug issues, lack of past contact and concern, etc.
  • Concerns you have regarding any other members of the other parent’s household and how your concerns affect the best interests of your child. 
  • How you intend to address problems you may have had in the past.
  • Actions you intend to take to address concerns raised by either the other parent or the mediators.
  • How you have communicated with the other parent, and how that could change/improve in the future.

Focus on what is best for your child or children.  Try to refrain from bad-mouthing the other parent.  If your circumstances dictate that you must raise serious concerns about the other parent, be prepared to cite specific examples of conduct.

For advice on issues specific to your case, you should contact an experienced divorce and family law attorney.

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.

Not having their children with them each and every day is often one of the most difficult adjustments divorcing parents must make.  Holidays tend to be difficult for all divorced and separated parents.  Often, family get-togethers serve as painful reminders of what once was, and what has been lost.  This is magnified when a parent must spend a holiday away from a child.  

As part of developing a post-divorce parenting plan, parents (or the Court, if the parents cannot agree) must determine which parent will have the kids on which holidays.  Most people would like to keep as many family traditions as possible intact for their children.  It is important for children to experience holiday traditions on both sides of their extended families.

The holidays that can be addressed in a court order are limited only by the parents’ imagination.  In my practice, parents usually choose to address the following holidays:

  • New Year’s Eve;
  • New Year’s Day;
  • Easter;
  • Mother’s Day;
  • Memorial Day;
  • July 4;
  • Labor Day;
  • Halloween;
  • Thanksgiving;
  • Christmas Eve;
  • Christmas Day;
  • The child’s birthday

There is usually no doubt that mothers will always have the children on Mother’s Day and fathers will always have the children on Father’s Day.  In my opinion, this is as it should be.   These holidays were established so that each family could honor its mother and its father, respectively.  The beauty of this cultural tradition is that in most situations, each parent has a special day with the children.

Once in a while a parent will try to convince the Court that it is/was more important for the child to see an extended family member, rather than the designated, celebrated, parent.  Stepparents and grandparents may be very important influences in a child’s life, and they deserve recognition on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (phone calls, emails, gifts or cards).  There is a great editorial on newsday.com this morning celebrating the blended family – “The perfect blend for Mother’s Day.”  But, I cannot recall an instance when the Court decided that someone else should have the kids on Mothers Day or Father’s Day.  So for all of the moms out there, have a happy Mother’s Day!

In Wisconsin, Court files are generally open and subject to public inspection, as part of the state Open Records Law.   That is why a political news story yesterday caught my eye: a Judge in a Missouri congressman’s divorce sealed the file after a reporter asked to see it.  

Unless a Judge specifically orders otherwise, any person can go to a local Circuit Court Clerk of Courts office and ask to see a divorce file.  The entire file is an “open book,” save for a few documents.   We also have CCAP, part of the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access System, where a catalogue of most court filings is maintained in a public database.  The level of detail provided online as to the nature of the individual documents within a file seems to vary by county.

There are two documents which are not for public consumption:

  • Confidential Petition Addendum.  A couple of years ago, the law was (thankfully) changed to provide that instead of putting people’s social security numbers in the Petition for Divorce, that information goes into a separate Confidential Petition Addendum.   The Addendum is placed into a sealed Court file.  The Court, the parties to the case and their attorneys are entitled to access this information.
  • Financial Disclosure Statement.  All parties to divorce are required to file sworn statements setting forth information about their income, expenses, assets and liabilities.  This document, known as a Financial Disclosure Statement, goes into a sealed Court file.  Only the Court, the parties to the case and their attorneys are entitled to access this information.

In Wisconsin, upon request, the Judge decides whether or not to seal a file.  In my local area the sealing of entire divorce files is a relatively rare occurrence, as confirmed by the Appleton Post-Crescent when the paper conducted an investigation of court files in its four-county readership area (Calumet, Outagamie, Waupaca and Winnebago Counties) earlier this year.  

As a result, for most people, their divorce is an open book for anyone to read.  The type of information in an open divorce file often includes:

  • Home address;
  • Occupation and/or employer;
  • Date of marriage;
  • Names and dates of birth of minor children;
  • Whether or not anyone in the family is receiving public assistance;
  • Whether or not the wife is pregnant;
  • In a custody dispute, specific claims about the other spouse: abuse, neglect, alcohol/drug use, etc.
  • A description of the assets being awarded to each spouse;
  • A description of the debts being assigned to each spouse;
  • What the custody and placement arrangements are in a case, and why.

Should this information be for public consumption?  Does the availability of CCAP make a difference? I’d love to hear what you think.

One of the things clients are most concerned about is the length of time it will take for their divorce to be finalized.  Unfortunately, there is no real “standard” amount of time it takes to be divorced.  In Wisconsin, the minimum waiting period is 120 days from the date that the other spouse is served with the Petition for divorce or legal separation.  That’s about four months.  However, most divorces take longer than that.   On average, most divorces take six to eight months to be concluded. 

There are a number of variables which impact the length of time a divorce will take, but here are some of the most important ones:

1.  Whether or not there is a custody/placement dispute.   A custody or placement dispute is one of the biggest determining factors for the length of the divorce process.  Wisconsin law requires parents who disagree about custody or placement to attend mediation.  In most counties, a mediation orientation/educational class is required prior to the first “individual” mediation session with the parents.  In Outagamie County, for example, the orientation is only held once per month (“Children Caught in the Middle“).  Mediation itself takes time.  If mediation fails, the Court will appoint a Guardian ad Litem, and may order other custody evaluations, extending the process.  As a result, it is not uncommon for a fully contested placement dispute to take a year to wind its way through the system. 

2.  The complexity of the case.  The more complex the case, the longer it will take to conclude.  For example, if the marital estate includes a business, that business may need to be valued by an accountant.  If one spouse is claiming an asset is not subject to division because it was gifted or inherited, that gift or inheritance will have to be documented and traced. 

3.  The contentiousness of the case.  There is no doubt that the more issues in dispute, the longer the case will take.  The more time the parties and/or their attorneys spend fighting about issues large and small, the longer it takes them to be prepared to conduct a final divorce hearing.  There is also a direct relationship between the number of issues in dispute and the amount of court time required to present the case.  The more court time that is required, the further in advance the hearing needs to be set.

4.  The county in which the divorce is venued.  This doesn’t seem as though it should matter, but it does.  Some counties have local rules in place to keep divorces on track, while others do not.  Some counties have Judges assigned to hear only family court cases, while others have all Judges hear all types of cases.   Some counties automatically schedule Status or Scheduling Conferences, while others require the parties to request them.  Your attorney can give you an idea of how long a divorce may be expected to take in your particular county.

The other day, the ABA Journal published an article online about a Canadian case, entitled “Wean Toddler from Breast Milk or Use Machine, Judge Rules.”  In that case, the Judge decided that in order to facilitate dad spending time with the child, mom could either wean the nearly three year old or use a breast milk pump.

That got me thinking about the controversial role breastfeeding can play in placement disputes here in Wisconsin.  It can be a hot-button issue in the context of custody litigation.

Many times, mothers of young children balk at the concept of extended placement, or even overnight placement, with fathers if they are nursing.  Essentially, the argument is that breastfeeding is so important that it would be contrary to the child’s best interests to disrupt it, or at least to disrupt it too much.   The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly promotes breastfeeding for all of its benefits to both mother and child.   Additionally, mothers who breastfeed tend to promote the intense mother-child bond that develops as a result of the physical closeness.

On the other side of the coin, the father-child bond is just as important to facilitate and maintain, particularly when children are newborns and infants.  Nursing often means that children are unable to be away from their mothers for more than a few hours at a time, without either supplemental nutrition or bottle feeding with stored breastmilk.  Fathers wonder how they will bond with their children if they only see them for a few hours at a time, or are prohibited from having them overnight.  As a result, fathers may claim mothers use nursing as a weapon to keep them from from their children. 

These issues are often very difficult for Judges and Court Commissioners to deal with.  Their decisions have to be based on the facts of individual cases.   However, my own experience in the courtroom tells me that it is becoming more and more likely that judicial officials here will tell moms they had better start pumping.

Is this the right answer?  I don’t know that there is one magic answer to this dilemma.  It has to depend on the situation at hand.  Important factors will include:

  • Age of the child
  • Medical needs of the child
  • Whether or not mom works outside the home (if so, she is presumably already pumping — and that can cut both ways)
  • The placement proposals of each parent

Hopefully, whatever decisions are reached, they are in the best interests of the child.

If you live in Wisconsin, have a child and were never married to the other parent, you need a formal determination of paternity in order to establish certain legal rights and responsibilities.   This is true even if the father’s name is on the birth certificate, and even if the child is given the father’s last name.  This is true even if the parents are living together.  This is true even if the parents have a great co-parenting relationship without the “benefit” (hassle) of legal intervention.

If you are a father, here is some of what you are missing:

  • You have no legal custody rights;
  • You have no rights to physical placement (physical custody);
  • Your child has no right to inherit from you;
  • Your child has no right to receive social security benefits based upon your earnings record in the event of your death or disability;
  • You have no legal input in the selection of your child’s last name;
  • You have no right to collect child support;
  • You have no right to collect reimbursement for child-related expenses;
  • You have no right to claim the child as a dependent/exemption for income tax purposes

If you are a mother, here is some of what you are missing:

  • You have no right to collect child support;
  • You have no right to collect reimbursement for child-related expenses;
  • You have no right, as the child’s custodian, to receive social security benefits for the child in the event of the father’s death or disability

In Wisconsin, paternity can be established in one of two ways:  a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity or a formal court adjudication of paternity.  Many of my clients have called the voluntary acknowledgement paperwork the “blue form” they received in the hospital.  This is different from the birth certificate paperwork.   A voluntary acknowledgement has a binding, legal effect and is filed with the State of Wisconsin with other vital records.  For more information on voluntary acknowledgements, visit http://dcf.wisconsin.gov/bcs/path.htm.

If a voluntary acknowledgement is not possible, a court action may be started to have the Court make a formal adjudication of paternity.  Fathers and mothers both have standing to begin a paternity case.   If a parent is receiving public assistance (welfare benefits), the State of Wisconsin will typically file a paternity case in the courts.  Private divorce & family law attorneys, like me, also frequently assist clients in establishing paternity. 

For more information about establishing paternity, visit:

When I talk with people about family law issues, I find there are a lot of misconceptions held by the public about the way the system actually works.  One of the most common questions I receive is a variation of “At what age can my child decide which parent she wants to live with?”

Now, what is the correct answer to that question?

A.    12

B.     16

C.     The child always gets to decide

D.    None of the above

Believe it or not, the correct answer is “D!”  In Wisconsin Family Court, the only “magic age” is 18 – adulthood.  Once a child reaches 18, the Court loses jurisdiction over custody and placement matters (but not necessarily child support; that is a topic for another day). 

This is true for all cases in Family Court, which are cases regarding annulment, divorce, legal separation or paternity-related matters.  Juvenile Court and Probate Court work within a different set of statutes and rules, and the wishes of children may be given more weight in those forums.

That is not to say that children have no voice in Family Court.  As a child ages and matures, his or her opinion tends to be given greater weight by all of the professionals in Family Court.  But, under the law, children never have the final say.  

Is this fair?

Is this moral?

What do you think?

Over the weekend, local media in my area have been focusing on the issue of domestic abuse in the wake of a fatal shooting on Friday in the town of Grand Chute.  http://tinyurl.com/c3u9rs 

Unfortunately, violence is far too often a component of the relationship between people involved in Family Court matters.  Both men and women can be victims of domestic violence, but the majority of victims who seek help are women. 

Wisconsin defines “domestic abuse” broadly, to include not only physical or sexual abuse, damage to property belonging to the victim, and even threats to cause harm.   One of the ways in which the law tries to protect victims as they try to move on with their lives is through the domestic abuse injunction.  In some jurisdictions, these are known as restraining orders or orders of protection.  The Wisconsin statute governing domestic abuse injunctions is Section 813.12, found at http://xrl.us/bepi94.

This statute governs who can file for a domestic abuse injunction, the procedures that will take place, what protection or relief a person can get from an injunction, how the injunction will be enforced and the penalties for violation of an injunction.  Generally, adult family members, household members, caregivers, spouses and former spouses, those in current or former dating relationships, and adults with whom the petitioner has a child in common may petition the court for relief if they have been victims of domestic abuse. 

Once a petition is filed, the Court will hold a hearing to determine whether the injunction will be granted.  Upon request, if there are grounds, the Court may enter what is called a Temporary Restraining Order, or “TRO.”  The TRO may be in place from the time the petition is filed until there can be a full hearing on the matter.

If you are a victim, and you do not have an attorney to assist you in obtaining an injunction, standardized court forms are available from the Wisconsin Court System at http://www.wicourts.gov/forms1/circuit.htm.  Also, local abuse shelters often have programs available to help victims obtain an injunction with or without the assistance of an attorney.