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More divorcing couples dealing with pet custody

If you're going through a divorce, you may have a lot of questions, even if you already have an attorney. What will we do with the mortgage? Will I be able to stay on the same health care plan? Most importantly, who will take care of our beloved cat and dog? Is it a custody issue, or division of property?

In every state in the country pets are considered property and for years, they were divided just like furniture. But people tend to have a closer relationship with their pets these days, especially in the absence of children. And that's changing the way the courts handle the division of pets. It used to be that people were embarrassed to fight over the custody of a pet, but today animals are recognized as something more than an accessory.

Often when there are children involved, a judge will keep the pet with the child. But when the pet is the child, the decision isn't so cut-and-dry. There are no laws that cover visitation with an animal. So you and your ex will have to come to an agreement on your own about whether you want to share your dog after your relationship ends, and exactly how you'll do that.

The good news is that the cost of determining yourself where Patches and Lucky will live is considerably lower than the attorney fees involved in child custody decisions. In fact, shared custody of pets can sometimes have benefits you didn't have when you were together. Not living together means you aren't taking the same trips or leaving your pets alone at the same time. When one dog parent goes on vacation, for example, the other can take over instead of having to send the pet off to a kennel.

In the worst pet custody cases, spite and retaliation can come into play and make things stressful for the separating parties and the pet. There have even been cases where a divorcing spouse had the family dog euthanized just to hurt the other spouse. But laws are changing to protect pets in situations like these. In some states domestic violence restraining orders cover pets, because abusers can use pets to threaten victims. Many attorneys believe these laws will increase as our relationships with our pets continue to deepen.

Source: Boston.com, "Divorce lawyers: Pet custody cases increasing," Sue Manning, Feb. 28, 2012

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