Custody Wars: Who Gets the Pet?

Who gets custody of the pets in a divorce?

By Kristi Nelson
|  Friday, May 11, 2012  |  Updated 4:37 AM CDT
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Battles over dogs and cats are breaking out in divorce courts, with people racking up legal fees to hammer out visitation calendars and other details.

Kristi Nelson, NBC 5 News

Battles over dogs and cats are breaking out in divorce courts, with people racking up legal fees to hammer out visitation calendars and other details.

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Pet custody is a hot topic in family law as battles over dogs and cats figure into divorce cases more than ever.

Not only do people rack up legal fees hammering out visitation calendars for their pets, they also mediate even the smallest of details -- such as what's served in the doggie bowls.

"Pets are part of the family -- they're part of my family," said Aubrey Connatser, a Dallas-based family law attorney.

Connatser and her husband have two children and also have two schnauzers they are very attached to. She said she understands when clients come in and want to battle their soon-to-be former spouses for custody of "man's best friend," "man's best cat" or "best horse."

"Yes, you'd be really surprised at how often it comes up," she said.

Theresa Chiou knows all about it. She's proof that when a divorcing couple has children, it's the youngsters who often have the upper hand.

Chiou has primary custody of her young daughters, but the family's 11-year-old beagles go wherever the kids go.

"They were very young when we went through the divorce, so I thought it really helped to have something that they know would be still always with them, no matter which house they were at," she said.

The children and dogs sleep at her place throughout the week. Every other weekend, both kids and both dogs are with their father.

"Thursdays, when he drops off the kids, they stay here, and the dogs will go with him, so for one night, he'll have the dogs with no kids, and I'll have the kids with no dogs," she said.

And they split the vet bills down the middle.

The arrangement seems to be working, Chiou said.

"Wherever they go, they know the dogs will be with them," she said.

Family law experts said it seems that judges these days are giving pets more consideration, and attorneys are finding creative solutions.

Some couples reach their own agreements, as in one case Connatser recalls.

"It involved a custody schedule for the two Pomeranians, as well as an obligation of both parties to continue preparing the home-cooked meals for the dogs that they'd enjoyed all of their five years of life -- including rice and lamb and an occasional steak," she said.

Most people don't realize that in the eyes of the law, their precious bundles of fur are technically no different than the family’s furniture.

"Pets legally are property, and so it's very hard to reconcile the emotion that is oftentimes involved in your love for your pet and the bond with your pet and the fact that it's really an issue of how is that property going to be divided," Connatser said. "Is it going to belong to the husband, or belong to the wife?"

Connatser said separating couples with children and pets should get a pet in each house and save the money that would be spent fighting over pet custody. And she has similar advice for couples without children.

"As a parting gift for your husband or wife, buy them a puppy, and then both houses will be full of the joy that pets bring, and you won't have to fight over it in the divorce," she said.

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