Pet Custody

photo credit: Graur Razvan Ionut

Custody of children is a hotly contested issue in many divorces, but many divorces also involve a heated debate about the custody of small furry children as well. Pets are like children to many people and the thought of no longer living with or seeing a beloved dog or cat (or other animal) can be very upsetting.

Understand the Law

If you’re in a situation where custody of your pet is an issue, the first thing you need to do is understand what the law is. In almost all states, pets are simply property. They have no special status under the law and are not viewed as children (although there is growing movement to have this changed). They are simply an object to be divided in the divorce. That being said, there are more and more cases popping up where judges do allow special testimony about the pet and make rulings that involve “visitation” with the pet.

How Pet Custody Is Decided

When a court takes the time to consider how to share time with a pet, the judge will be interested in the following factors:

  • Who cared for the pet (fed it, groomed it, walked it, and took it to the vet)
  • Who spent the most time with the pet
  • Testimony of the veterinarian as to who brought the pet in most often
  • Information about how well the pet was cared for
  • Facts about where the parties will live after the divorce and who is best equipped to care for the pet and provide a good environment

Another important factor involves whether there are children. When children are involved, the pet almost always will remain in the home with the children because of their attachment to the pet. Divorce itself is traumatic enough for a child, but to also have the family pet taken away from the primary residence is an additional blow no child needs to deal with.

Creating a Pet Parenting Plan

Because there’s no way to know how a court will react to your pet custody dispute (some courts will have no time for such an argument and will just treat the animal as personal property), if you and your ex can work out a plan to share time with the animal, you’ll be able to craft an arrangment that will work for both of you and allow everyone to continue to maintain a relationship with the animal. Some things to consider include:

  • Your schedules. Try to maximize human contact for the animal. Sitting in a crate alone is no fun.
  • Maintain a regular schedule so that everyone can easily adjust to it.
  • Expect accidents and upset. If your pet is going to stay with you at a new home, there will be an adjustment. Be patient.
  • Write out your plan so there can be no confusion.
  • Be flexible. If your pet is miserable, you’re going to have to make changes.

 

Pet Finances

Some couples work out an agreement (or ask the court to decide) about the pet’s expenses. Probably the biggest expense is vet bills, but grooming, food, dogwalkers, and training classes can also be quote costly. If you are sharing time with the pet, it makes sense to find a way to share expenses. Consider apportioning the expenses in the same way you share time. If you have a 50/50 time split, a 50/50 split for expenses makes sense. A 20/80 time split would indicate a 20/80 expense split.

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Kids Who Are Unhappy About Visitation

It’s something I heard time and time again from custodial parents who were back in family court for modification of their custody orders. “My son hates going on visitation. He gets upset days in advance. Sometimes I have to force him to go. I think we need to stop visitation.” This is a very common scenario and if your child has never once complained about going on scheduled visitation, then you are in a rare minority.

 

What Kids Really Hate

Most kids don’t hate the other parent. They hate the upheaval in their lives and they express it by complaining about going on visitation. At times they make it sound like the other parent is what they don’t like. “Dad ignores me. His house is boring.” “Mom makes me go to bed early. I hate it there.” Again, what the child is reacting to is the situation. Kids who live in one home with both parents have gripes about their parents, but it doesn’t mean those parents are bad parents who don’t deserve to spend time with the kids!

 

Don’t Insert Yourself into the Situation

In most divorces, there are some bad feelings, even years later. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that it might make you feel just the tiniest bit happy if your child is mad at, annoyed at, bored with, or frustrated with the other parent. It’s just what your ex might deserve in your mind if you let yourself admit it. That doesn’t mean you can encourage, support, or even allow your child’s reaction to go on. Your child needs two parents. Neither of you are perfect and your child gets fed up with each of you, but you’re both still going to be in his life. If you haven’t accepted that, it’s time to do so.

 

Don’t Be the Bad Guy

One thing that is particularly hard when you are the custodial parent is having to shoehorn your kid out the door to go on visitation when honestly you would be perfectly happy if your child didn’t have to go (you wouldn’t have to have those arguments about vacation schedules or put up with your ex being late or trying to change things at the last minute).  It’s not fun to be the one forcing your kid to go when he tells you he doesn’t want to. The solution to this is actually quite simple. Tell your child it’s not up to you. The judge has decided this is the schedule and all of you have to follow it. There are no other options. You no longer have to be the bad guy and your child feels like there is a higher power that controls the situation.

 

How to Improve the Mood

Even if you’re able to reconcile yourself to visitation and remove yourself from the enforcer role, it still is no fun to listen to whining or complaining. Try these tips for making the transition easier:

–          When your child comes home, ask him to tell you one fun thing he did.

–          Smile when you hand off your child. Your mood is infectious. If you act like this is a great and happy occasion, it will rub off.

–          Institute a no whining rule. Tell your child there will be no complaining about going on visitation.

–          Make it clear that your child cannot cancel or postpone the planned parenting time. Often whining is an attempt to see if you’ll let the child off the hook. If changing the plans is not an option, there will be fewer complaints.

–          If your child has complaints about what happens at the other parents’ house, tell her that that is something to discuss with the other parent, not with you.

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How to Create a Parenting Plan

Photo Credit: nuttakit

Once you have a basic custody agreement decided (or ordered by a court), you still have a lot of work to do in order to create a workable parenting schedule. If you have a court order that specifies alternate weekend and one night per week visitation with the non-custodial parent, you might think there’s nothing for you to do. Setting up a parenting schedule is actually rather complicated and requires you and your ex to sit down together (if possible) and hammer out the details. If you don’t have a court order and want to work this out on your own, then you also need to find time to sit down and work through it.

Map It Out

You each need to bring your own calendar to the meeting, as well as have a calendar showing all of your child’s sports events, school events, and extracurricular activities. You should place a large blank month by month calendar on the table in between you. Using pencil, start by plotting in all the visitation for the next month. Then compare these dates to your own calendars and your child’s calendar. Look for conflicts. For example, if you need to go out of town on business on a weekend you would normally have, it would make sense to swap weekends so your ex has your child at that time. If pick and drop off from visitation falls in the middle of a soccer game, dance practice or birthday party your child goes to, you need to adjust the times.

Moving Forward

Once you’ve worked through one month, try plotting out the next two. Work through that, then set up a tentative schedule for the rest of the year. Keep in mind this has to be tentative and subject to change. It’s really hard to know what is going to be happening in December when you are scheduling in March. Plan to be flexible and make adjustments as you go.

Holiday Schedule

Next work on the holiday schedule. If you have a court order, it might spell out who has which holiday, but you’ll still need to make some adjustments. For example, if your ex has Thanksgiving this year but the Saturday and Sunday after it would normally be his weekend, it might make sense to switch out that weekend, so you will have some time with your child on that holiday weekend. If your ex has Christmas Eve, but that falls on a weekend that would be yours, you’ll need to remember that holidays trump regularly scheduled weekends.

Make Changes Together.

Try to be flexible with each other. Remember that you can make any changes to the visitation plan that you both agree on – and in fact courts want you to do this rather than filling up the docket with trivial things like this. If you can work it out on your own, you absolutely should do so. If you’re worried about your ex pulling a fast one, you can enter a stipulation into court to get the change made official.

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