Joint custody, sole custody with visitation, no ongoing relationship at all or splitting the pets between partners are all up for consideration, as are who pays expenses for the animal (no matter who has custody) and what happens if the custodial caregiver becomes incapacitated or links up with someone who hates dogs.
"There has definitely been an increase in pets as part of the settlement," says attorney Donald Frank, partner in Blank Rome's Manhattan office. In a 2006 survey of lawyers by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 25% reported an increase in pet custody, about 90% of the cases involving dogs.
And it's sometimes a "very hotly contested issue," Frank says.
Most times, divorcing couples decide about pets (regarded as property) fairly early in the settlement process, "often in a series of phone calls between lawyers," Frank says. But sometimes, he says, the matter must be resolved by a judge.
Divorces aren't the only breakups with implications for pets: Live-in relationships that fall apart often prompt animal-care negotiations.
Lorna Doone has two homes
When Amelia Glynn, 35, and her boyfriend broke up last year, she requested shared custody with the pit bull he brought with him into the relationship. The dog "was important enough to me that I wanted to make a joint-custody agreement," Glynn says, so Lorna Doone spends alternating periods with each.
Glynn wrote about the arrangement in her just-launched pet column on SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle's online operation. The piece prompted several readers to write emotionally about similar experiences, including one divorced couple who share custody of their Boston terriers and an unmarried couple who worked out a split-time deal for their Taiwanese dog.
"It's just not weird" to want to continue a relationship with a beloved pet, Glynn says.
But it can be complicated.
In the best case, the couple put aside emotion, resentment and recrimination and "focuses on figuring out what's best for the animal," says Jennifer Keene, author of a new book that offers guidance for doing just that: We Can't Stay Together for the Dogs: Doing What's Best for Your Dog When Your Relationship Breaks Up (T.F.H. Publications).
When Keene, 30, now a dog trainer in Beaverton, Ore., and her husband decided to divorce three years ago, they instantly agreed on arrangements for their two dogs. Keene took Moxee, an Australian cattle dog mix with some behavior problems, and her ex took Sixxy, a pointer mix.
The need for expert advice
Keene's pet-custody resolution was quick and amicable, but she discovered there wasn't much in the way of expert advice about how to navigate the matter properly. So she set out to research and write a step-by-step guide, including training tips for dogs that come unhinged with the changed family dynamics.
Architect Sara Vreed, 31, of Portland, Ore., put those tips to good use recently when she and her long-term boyfriend broke up.
"I knew to be concerned about the transition," Vreed says, because when the couple broke up for a time two years ago, Ivo, her sheltie, showed some classic stress signals — he had behavior problems and loss of fur on his belly. This time, she sought Keene's advice and learned the importance of "sticking to routines and keeping things positive," and, after just a couple of days of acting up, Ivo is calm and cheerful and hasn't had fur loss.
It's not always simple to keep a dog's equilibrium solid in the lead-up to the actual physical separation, or in arrangements after the split. No single approach works for every relationship or for every dog, Keene says. "You've always got to consider the individual characteristics of the dog."
Splitting up two dogs that have lived together isn't right in all situations, Keene says, although it was in hers, because the two dogs were friendly with each other but not really strongly bonded. And whether there's one or several pets, attention must be paid to which partner has the time, energy, interest and schedule to give each animal what it needs.
Because there's no "in the best interest of the dog" standard in law, says lawyer Jeffrey Lalloway of Irvine, Calif., the pet's living arrangements should be discussed rationally.
Do what's best for the pet
Sometimes it's best for the dog to stay with the person who keeps the house where it has lived, but not always, Keene says. Sometimes it's best to have a split-time arrangement so each partner gets some time with the pet, but sometimes it isn't, because some dogs aren't adaptable enough.
Still, experts agree, at the end of a relationship, rational discussion may be in short supply. As Frank points out, "People are very invested in their pets." One or both partners may demand custody simply to antagonize the other, but Frank says it's most often because "this is already an emotional time for them, and the thought of also losing their dog" is painful.
Keene empathizes. But in the end, "if the person who is most heartbroken at the thought of losing the dog is not the one who can, realistically, provide a good environment and life for it, my hope is that person will put aside his or her own desires and do what's best for the dog."
From USA Today.