Dog gone: Deciding pet custody

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2003

AMARILLO, Texas Child custody, home ownership and financial matters are typically the big issues addressed in divorces, but what about Rover and Mittens?

Pet custody is one of the issues seeks to address. The Louisville, Ky.-based Web site started in May 2002 and seeks to help with comprehensive divorce agreement preparation for cooperative divorcing couples.

The Web site allows users to create their own divorce agreement using self-guided online forms.

Mark Stein, the site's founder, said he added a section on pet custody at the suggestion of a site user.

Included in this section are such issues as division of pets and time with the divorcing parties, medical emergencies, vet bills and other pet issues.

"I emphasize on there that this is an unexplored area of the law and most things they might agree to might not be enforced by a judge," Stein said.

But several issues arise when trying to address pet custody, Stein said.

"If they do share the dog, what about vet bills, grooming and boarding for out-of-town trips?" Stein said.

Stein said he's a mediator, not an attorney, and attempts to help divorcing couples with the types of decisions that could become more problematic later on.

The pets section of the Web site notifies users that inclusion of this section is not meant to trivialize, nor inflate the importance of animals in the lives of families. Users are asked to consult with their attorneys as to how enforceable any of these agreements are.

"I had to be careful because I'm walking a fine line between the bizarre and laughable and serious decision making," Stein said.

"People get attached to their animals. It's of consequence to them. Anything we can do to take that seriously benefits everyone."

But using more traditional legal methods for divorce, the issue of pet custody is rare, according to some attorneys.

Doug Woodburn, president of the Panhandle Family Law Assoc-iation, said he's only dealt with four or five cases of pet custody in his 27 years of practice.

"It's expensive to litigate over just about any issue," Woodburn said. "Most people determine it's not economically feasible to battle over who gets 'Spot' and who doesn't. There's another 'Spot' down the road."

But that's not to say the issue has never reached the courtroom.

"I had one judge here in Amarillo about eight years ago enter a custody order where each party got custody (of the dog) half the time," Woodburn said.

Another attorney, Joe Marr Wilson, said taking these sorts of pet custody matters to a judge may hurt the client's credibility with issues that have a greater financial impact.

Wilson said he's dealt with pet custody negotiations about 10 to 15 times in the last 15 years, and the issue is a rare one that can normally be resolved among couples.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I wouldn't have an idea whether people have pets or not," Wilson said. "A lot of the time, it's very apparent in a family situation whose dog the pet really is."

Pets frequently stay with the children of divorcing couples if the children had a lot of involvement with it, Wilson said.

Woodburn said he's also seen this, and when looking at all of the other issues involved in divorces, pet custody can become immaterial.

"I think one misconception is it's going to be a big area of contention," Woodburn said. "In the end, it generally works itself out."

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