The law has not fully recognized that dogs and other family pets are treasured family members. As with agreements on other sensitive issues such as child custody and property division, couples should make pet custody plans if they ever divorce because of the gaps in Alabama’s family law.
An American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers survey revealed that 27 percent of responding lawyers saw an increase in pet custody cases over the last five years. Dogs were involved in 88 percent of these cases followed by cats at five percent, horses at one percent and other animals making up six percent.
Yet, there are no assurances that pet custody decisions are based upon their well-being and best care. Under the law, pets are treated as inanimate personal property like furniture or dishes.
Typically, ownership is awarded to the spouse who purchased the pet. There is no guarantee that courts consider other emotional or pet welfare factors. This can lead to troubling situations such as a spouse taking a pet away as retribution against their partner or using the pet to extract concessions on other issues such as support.
Fortunately, other states such as Alaska, California, and Illinois enacted laws to assure that the pet’s welfare is considered during custody disputes. Some pet adoption groups are also asking adopting couples to identify who will keep their pet if they ever split up.
Couples can plan for this unwanted but important contingency by executing a pup nup agreement before or early in their marriage. They can agree to split custody and a visitation schedule. This can coincide with the child custody schedule to help children avoid additional trauma.
The pet’s well-being and care can be addressed in these agreement. This includes matters such as veterinary care, boarding, grooming, toys, training and dog walkers.
Even if these terms are not legally enforceable, discussing these agreements requires the couple to think through the care of their pet when they are not undergoing the stress of a divorce. A pup nup can also form the basis of a divorce settlement.
Boilerplate agreements can have drawbacks by not addressing all the interests of the couple or their pet’s well-being. These forms may be invalid or unenforceable in Alabama.
An attorney can help draft and negotiate these agreements. They can also present justification for pet custody if this issues goes to court.