March 3, 2012 in Features

Divorce lawyers see increase in pet custody cases

Emotional attachment plays key role in judges’ decisions
Sue Manning Associated Press
 

LOS ANGELES — They still fight like cats and dogs in divorce court. But more and more they are fighting about cats and dogs.

Custody cases involving pets are on the rise across the country.

In a 2006 survey by the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a quarter of respondents said pet custody cases had increased noticeably since 2001. The academy is due for another survey, but there is no doubt such cases have grown steadily since then, said Ken Altshuler of Portland, Maine, a divorce attorney and AAML president.

If there is a child involved in a divorce, many judges will keep the pet with the child, attorneys said.

“But what do you do when the pet is the child?” Altshuler asked.

Pet custody cases have grown as much as 15 percent in his office over the last five years, said attorney David Pisarra of Santa Monica.

Pets are considered property in every U.S. state. For years, they have been divvied up like furniture during divorce proceedings. But times are changing.

“Judges are viewing them more akin to children than dining room sets. They are recognizing that people have an emotional attachment to their animals,” Altshuler said.

Reaching a pet custody agreement without a lot of help from attorneys and judges will save money, Raso said. Divorces can cost $1,000 and be resolved quickly or cost millions and take years.

In years past, pets could not be protected in domestic violence restraining orders in any state. But because abusers can use pets to threaten victims, maybe even kill the animals, the laws have changed in states like Maine, New York, California and Illinois. Other states are looking into changes. And there will be changes in other laws too, Altshuler predicted.

He believes there will one day be statutes for pets, much like there are for children, giving judges guidelines to rule by.

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