Pet Custody Battles: 5 Tips for Keeping the Family Pet

Pet Custody Battles: 5 Tips for Keeping the Family Pet

In the ugly divorce between billionaire Bill Gross and his ex-wife Sue, nothing was left sacred, not even the cats. Amid allegations of a stolen Picasso, a home sullied with fart spray, and an “army of spies,” the investment titan fought bitterly for custody of the three felines but ended up with only visitation rights. He had to pay for a veterinary professional to ferry them back to her house at the appointed time.

Even after being awarded primary custody, Sue allegedly continued to press the issue. She checked up on the cats while they were with Bill, walking through a restraining order, and complained that their health was imperiled because his house was “too hot,” according to an unnamed source.

“The cats were fine,” the source told the New York Post. “They were returned the next day to Sue with a full physical checkup and clearance.”

The spat made good fodder for gossip pages, but pet custody battles are far from unusual in divorce courts. While most states officially view pets as property, no different from a couch or a record collection, case law is evolving down a different path. Couples are increasingly doting on their pets like children, and judges are starting to see them that way, too, by taking into account what’s best for the animal.

Two states, Alaska and Illinois, passed laws in 2017 explicitly requiring child-like custody considerations for pets. Bills to that effect have also been introduced in other states, including Rhode Island. Alaska’s law also allows courts to order pet-support payments for victims in domestic violence cases.

“Pets are truly members of our families,” said Alaska state Rep. Liz Vasquez, the bill’s sponsor. “We care for them as more than just property. As such, the courts should grant them more consideration. It’s only natural.”

If you and your spouse are headed for divorce, and you’re worried about what will happen to a pet, here are five key tips for preserving your relationship with your beloved animal companion:

  1. Talk to a divorce lawyer to make sure you know, before going to court, how pet custody is determined in your state. Remember that even if there is not a law explicitly imposing custody considerations, judges may look favorably on arguments for what’s in the best interest of the pet.
  2. Think about who paid for the pet, not just the initial purchase cost but also food and vet bills and other ongoing needs. Since pets are viewed as property in a strictly legal sense in most states, the cost will likely be a factor in who ultimately gets to keep the animal. If your spouse bought the pet and you are the person who will own it going forward, you may need to reimburse him or her for some part of the purchase cost or other expenses.
  3. Hold on to the pet while the divorce case is pending to show you deserve ownership. You’ll be demonstrating to the judge that you are the primary caregiver, and should continue to play that role. That said, you shouldn’t try to steal the pet. This will likely work against you in court and could be considered a criminal offense.
  4. Show you genuinely care for the pet. Like the Biblical King Solomon, who uncovered a mother’s love by offering to “split the baby,” judges similarly often want to see a pet go to the best home. Even if not required to consider the best interests of the pet, judges increasingly will do that. Having evidence of spending time with the pet and taking care of it will help.
  5. If amicable enough with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, consider the possibility of sharing or a co-ownership arrangement. Like a human child, a fur child may benefit from having two loving “parents,” even if they are no longer married. It could make your life easier, too, by sharing obligations.

Dror Bikel is a Manhattan-based divorce and child custody lawyer. He founded and leads Bikel and Schanfield, New York’s best-known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. To connect with Dror: [hidden email]

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