Please Don’t Split the Fur Baby

On a rerun of Judge Judy, a man brought a lawsuit against a woman to reclaim his dog. He told Judge Judy that someone stole his dog and the woman he sued was in possession of it. The woman replied that she bought the dog off a man in the street and has cared for it as her own, evidenced by veterinary bills she produced.

Judge Judy then ordered that the dog be brought into the courtroom. A woman then retrieved the dog, and as soon as it saw the plaintiff, it’s tail wagged like crazy. Judge Judy ordered the woman to place the dog on the ground, and as soon as she did, it raced over to the man and danced excitedly at his legs.

Judge Judy saw enough and ordered the dog belonged to the man – case closed.

While this was a heartwarming and entertaining case, Judge Judy isn’t representative of the actual legal system. It’s really more like binding arbitration, as the two litigants agree to appear on the show and agree to abide by Judge Judy’s ruling, even if it has no legal merit.

While letting a dog choose between two owners works great on TV, it doesn’t work that way in real life. Therefore, pet owners have gotten proactive and taken matters into their own hands.

Under most states’ laws, pets are callously considered personal property, like a lamp or couch. Accordingly, when couples divorce, the cost of the dog is determined and viewed like the cost of a TV when divvying belongings up between the spouses.

Alaska, California and Illinois have enacted laws giving judges discretion to consider the best interests of pets for custody, similar to minor children. Legislation is pending in New York state to allow the same thing.

Instead of leaving the custody of a pet up to a judge, which typically leaves one spouse feeling devastated, a new trend called the “petnup” has emerged.

In a nutshell, a petnup is a prenuptial agreement that governs the custody of pets in the event of a divorce. The agreements are especially helpful for animals acquired during the marriage. As I mentioned in a previous article, there are more households with pets in America today than with children. Accordingly, the use of petnups to address who gets a couple’s “fur babies” will likely increase.

Advocates of petnups suggest that at the time a pet is acquired during a marriage, the couple should agree whose name will appear alone on registration or adoption papers. That person should pay any costs for the pet out of their own separate funds. If the couple splits, it helps if they’ve already agreed as to who gets the pet.

In a divorce, a guardian ad litem is an attorney who represents the best interests of minor children and recommends placement to the court. In cases involving pets, many lawyers enlist the opinion of an animal behaviorist to testify as to placement.

Surprisingly, joint visitation schedules or shared custody can be more stressful for a pet than sole custody with one spouse. Going back and forth between two homes, along with the emotions attached to each reunion, can lead to behavioral problems.

Because most couples won’t enter into a petnup, many animal-loving legislators are asking for more laws to be passed empowering judges to consider the emotional needs of pets and order placement.

The woman who lost custody of the dog wanted to appeal Judge Judy’s decision. The appellate judge threw out the case. Apparently, because he’s a good boy, the dog retrieved it and brought it back.

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Reg P. Wydeven

Elder Law and Estate Planning Attorney at McCarty Law LLP
Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps from a young age, Reg’s practice primarily consists of advising individuals on estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. As Reg represents clients in matters like guardianship proceedings and long-term care admissions, he feels grateful to be able to offer families thorough legal help in their time of need.

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