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Property division for your pets: How to negotiate animal custody

If you think that custody battles over children get heated, you might be surprised to learn that those involving pets can become downright explosive. As Pennsylvanians spend more time and money on their pets than ever before, property division questions are continuing to arise over the custody of these animals. The fact remains that pets are still considered property -- not family members -- and modern courts are struggling to reconcile outdated laws with our modern concept of pet ownership.

Celebrity couple Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas are preparing for their own doggy custody battle, with Griffith reportedly making a play for the couple's three dogs. Attorneys say that there are few pet-specific guidelines to help judges make decisions in divorce cases. In many cases, the judges simply instigate a "bidding war," forcing pet parents to haggle over their beloved animals like they would a couch or other piece of furniture. This understandably puts many pet owners in a difficult situation, forcing them to spend thousands of dollars to retain ownership of their beloved animal.

Couples may consider drafting post-nuptial agreements to simplify marital property issues related to their animals. Post-nuptial agreements can ensure that the pet goes to the spouse that cares for it more often and is more bonded to the animal. Unless a prenuptial agreement or post-nuptial document is created, courts generally refrain from awarding visitation during pet custody proceedings.

Only one special law exists to protect pets during a breakup, and that is the domestic violence exemption. If one partner files for a restraining order against the other, that person may also petition for custody of the pet. This is because the victim may worry about the welfare of the animal if domestic abuse is already occurring. Pennsylvania family attorneys may be able to provide more information about this type of legal maneuver in the context of a larger marital property division negotiation.

Source: The Daily Beast, "Divorce Is Going to the Dogs, Literally" Keli Goff, Jun. 20, 2014

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