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Family pets are a growing source of contention during divorce

Pet custody disputes, once a largely non-existent issue, are now playing a central role in many divorce cases.

Certain issues, such as child custody and spousal support, are well known for having the ability to bring out deep animosities between couples going through a divorce. However, other issues may come as a surprise for the level of emotion they can bring to a marital breakup. One such issue is pet custody, something that has become a growing point of contention for divorcing couples in recent years, according to Reuters. The problem is that many people going through a divorce expect their pets to be treated as though they were children by a court and they are often disappointed and sometimes angry to learn that pets are treated just like any other type of marital property in the eyes of most judges.

Pet custody disputes

For people who are not pet owners, it may sound surprising to hear just how central pet ownership can be in divorce proceedings. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, for example, says that its members have witnessed a 27 percent rise in pet custody cases over the past five years. Dogs, perhaps unsurprisingly, are at the center of 88 percent such cases, with cats a distant second.

For people who are pet owners, the rise in pet custody cases will hardly come as a surprise. For many couples, especially for the growing number of those who don't have children or who are empty-nesters, a pet is treated very much like a child. In Arizona, however, as in the rest of the country, the family pet is legally considered property and will be treated as such by the courts. In other words, questions concerning a pet's "best interests" often hold little sway in pet custody disputes, at least not to the extent that they would in a child custody case.

Resolving custody

Because pets are treated as property by most courts, this is one issue that many couples choose to resolve through their own negotiations rather than by going in front of a judge. Although courts may not treat pets as children, pet owners who are going through a divorce are free to come up with legally binding agreements that cover issues such as "visitation" rights, veterinary care, and food expenses. By dealing with these issues outside of the courts, pet owners are often able to give greater care to the interests of their pets, something few judges are equipped (or permitted) to do.

Also, as USA Today reports, many pet owners are choosing to protect their pets beforehand through a prenuptial agreement. Such an agreement would cover similar issues around custody and care for the pets and could help avoid any nasty surprises if and when a divorce does happen.

Family law

As the issue of pet custody shows, divorce is one area of the law that has the unique potential to affect the personal lives of countless people. Many people going through a divorce are understandably unaware of how the law affects their specific situation, which is why a family law attorney should be contacted right from the start. An experienced attorney can inform clients about their legal rights and what to expect in the weeks and months both during and after their divorce.

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