To Have and To Pet…

Posted by Lisa Franzetta, ALDF's Director of Communications on January 21, 2009

Over 50% of animal guardians would rather have their dog or cat with them than another human if they were stranded on a desert island. Is it any wonder that more and more people are willing to spend large amounts of money to fight legal battles over who gets custody of the family pets when relationships go south? On January 14, I had the pleasure of attending a panel presented by the Bar Association of San Francisco, entitled “Hot Topics in Animal Law: Pet Custody Disputes,” to get some first-hand and legal perspectives on the issue.

Panelist Bill Schoch, who had to deal with negotiating custody of his two beloved cats when he separated from his long-time partner a couple of years ago, reminded us of the crucial emotional role that animal companions can play in our lives. In particular, he emphasized, the unconditional love and constant companionship that an animal companion provides is especially necessary during times of personal crisis, such as the break-up of a relationship. It’s no wonder that couples in the throes of separation are often willing to go to the mat to maintain what may be the most stable relationship in their lives–the one they have with their cats or dogs. In Bill’s case, he and his party were able to negotiate their custody arrangement without legal intervention…and while ALDF is here to provide assistance to judges who are faced with such cases, ideally for the animals and the parties involved, amicable resolutions in the best interests of the animals can be reached without heading to court.

Watch a video of Bill’s discussion here:

Also on the panel was attorney Lisa McCurdy, who emphasized some ways that couples might attempt to avoid litigation, including “pet premarital agreements,” a prenuptial agreement that would specify how custody would be determined in the event of a breakup. Such agreements are rare, but are contracts that would generally be recognized by courts.

Don’t miss Lisa’s discussion about what happens when the custody of a pet is disputed.

Pet custody might seem at first just another checkpoint on the list of issues to be resolved at the time of a breakup–including the custody of children, the divvying up of other property, alimony, etc.–but from the perspective of the field of animal law, it drives right to the heart of the legal conundrum that ALDF seeks to resolve. In the eyes of the law, companion animals are “property;” but in our daily experiences, they are something very different from a table, a chair, or a house. People have lasting, emotional relationships with their animals. What’s more, and even more critically, animals have their own interests–and this is something their legal status as property fails to recognize. That’s why ALDF submits amicus curiae briefs in such cases, arguing to judges not either for or against one of the battling parties, but rather, urging them to consider what is in the animal’s best interest when making a custody decision.

If you’re involved in a custody dispute, or if such a dispute is likely, be sure to check out ALDF’s pet custody resource page for helpful tips.