Everyone knows that a messy divorce can be tough on the kids. But what happens to Fido and Sparky when mom and dad split up?
A Wisconsin state representative wants to make sure judges think about the family pet when deciding divorces and annulments. A proposed state law would control how couples who split up handle custody of their pets.
Though still rare, family and animal law lawyers said that for people who love their pets, custody disputes are a real legal issue -- one that often leads to bitter and expensive court battles.
"It does not come up frequently, but when it does, it's a big time issue," said Gary Skoloff, a New Jersey family law attorney and the former chairman of the family law section of the American Bar Association. "People are willing to litigate the custody of their pet to the end. It becomes almost like fighting over the custody of a child."
"Judges are starting to see this as a more serious issue," he said. "More and more, judges are reporting litigation regarding pets."
The Wisconsin law, proposed earlier this month by state Rep. Sheryl Albers, would forbid judges from ordering shared custody of pets unless the divorcing couple agreed to the arrangement.
If they can't agree, under the law the court could grant custody of the pet to one person or force the couple to give the pet to the Humane Society.
"People have a strong emotional attachment to their family pets," said State Sen. Carol Roessler, the bill's single co-sponsor. "I think it's fair and appropriate for family courts to deal with the placement of family pets."
The proposed law reflects a push by pet owners and animal rights advocates to treat pets more like children. Current law generally considers pets to be property. As one Pennsylvania Superior Court judge put it in a 2002 case, sharing custody of a dog would be like setting up "a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp."
But, that may be changing. In several recent custody cases across the country, judges have considered the best interests of the pets in deciding where they should live, or have ordered divorcing couples to set up visitation schedules.
Some divorcing couples have spent thousands of dollars in court fees fighting over pets.
"This problem happens quite frequently," said Valerie Stanley, who teaches a course in animal law at Georgetown University Law Center. "Our companion animals for many people are like our children."
Stanley, a former attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for animal rights and has filed briefs in pet custody disputes, said the Wisconsin law would be a step in the right direction. She said courts should be encouraged to consider the best interests of the pet when deciding custody fights.
Skoloff was not so sure.
Asked if there was a need for the Wisconsin law, he said, "God no. That is so absurd. On the rare situation where this comes up, a trial judge is perfectly able to decide how to handle the custody of a dog."