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Pets, a sometimes-overlooked feature of divorce

When the issue of divorce comes up, it's common for discussion to center around who is going to get what and how child custody matters are going to play out. If a simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce is pursued by a couple in Pennsylvania, the battles that could rage over those issues tend not to occur because they get settled before the divorce papers are filed.

But there can be other "participants" in some breakup situations: Pets. While they might not be seen as major players in the family saga, divorce attorneys know that dogs and cats and other loved animals can become bones of contention. Or they might be used as tools of retribution, unless their welfare is considered right along with that of the human beings involved.

One of key reasons to address pet welfare through a settlement is that from a legal standpoint, pets are simply property, living and breathing without question, but still just property. And it is ridiculously expensive to have court determine ownership. According to observers with experience in the area, courts might assign ownership based on who licensed the dog or whoever is named on veterinarian records, even though that really does not prove whether the pet belonged to one party or the other or both during the marriage.

If those methods don't work, the court might assign ownership based on a determination of who can provide the best care, depending upon incomes and lifestyles. Naturally, it's best if such issues, whether over the dining room furniture or Fido, never come before the court.  It can be easy for an angry spouse to use ownership of a pet as a bargaining chip, even if that spouse really does not want it. When that happens, the danger is that a pet could wind up bearing the brunt of the fury one spouse has for the other, resulting in abuse or even unnecessary euthanasia.

So, what the experts tend to advise is for divorcing couples to commit to treating the issue of pet ownership the same as they would the best interests of children, but keeping in mind that it is a property ownership issue and not one of "custody". This could result in a decision to share possession of and responsibilities for the pet.

Source: Petside.com, "What Happens to Pets After Divorce?," Victoria Schade, Dec. 14, 2011

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