Whenever I’m walking my dog on the boardwalk, I get stopped by people who want to talk to me about him. Often there is a story about how they had a dog and then it comes out they had to give it up in a breakup.
Case in point is the very public breakup of actors Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. There’s something going on in this breakup that speaks specifically to an issue that countless Americans go through each year that oftentimes results in anger, bitterness and a desire to hurt each other. If you think I’m talking about infidelity, you’re wrong. I’m talking about a pet. More specifically, who gets the pet after a divorce or breakup.
In the case of this embittered celebrity couple, it appears they are battling over who gets custody of Bear, the dog Pattinson rescued from a New Orleans shelter and the couple cared for and raised together. Sound trivial? It’s not.
Pet custody cases are on the rise in the United States and for good reason. Pets have always been considered property by the courts in much the same way as a television or car. But more judges are beginning to acknowledge the emotional component at play surrounding pets and their owners. While the law still sees pets as property, we are now seeing pet custody awarded based on what is in the best interest of the pet.
I had a case a few months back here in Commissioner Cowan’s court and we were arguing over custody of the family dogs. My client wanted to move to Mexico after his divorce proceedings and requested that he take ownership of one of the two dogs he and his soon-to-be ex shared. The dogs stayed together here in Los Angeles. As a lawyer I argued for my client, but as a pet owner I understood why it was good for the animals to stay together.
For many couples, particularly childless couples, pets become like children. They are an integral part of the family structure and because of this I’ve seen couples fight just as hard for custody as they do when children are involved. And how can we avoid this battle when and if the time comes? Pet prenups.
I am a huge proponent of prenuptial agreements for two reasons. The first is that in the eyes of the law marriage is a business contract. Would you enter into a business contract without being protected should something go wrong? Of course not. And the second is that statistics show that couples who create prenups actually have a better chance of having a successful marriage. This is mainly due to the fact that the parties are entering their marriage as a team with maturity and foresight.
The main consideration in a prenup for a pet is which party retains ownership following a divorce or breakup. Other elements that can be included are shared costs for big ticket items such as vet visits and boarding as well as how end-of life decisions will be handled. Just having these items agreed upon in advance and put down on paper can alleviate a great deal of stress down the road. And the couples that take the time to do so are showing that they are committed to the notion that every pet owner should be concerned with, which is what can I do to provide the best life for a pet.
I have a bit of a vested interest in this topic because, along with co-author and prominent pet expert Steven May, I wrote the first book on the topic of dogs and divorce. “What About Wally: Co-Parenting A Pet With Your Ex” looks at the topic from both the legal perspective, covering such issues as custody and co-parenting, as well as the impact a breakup has on the family dog.
In the case of Mr. Pattinson and Ms. Stewart, my only hope is that they don’t turn Bear into a bargaining chip or use him as a way of hurting each other. The best case scenario is that they come together over their shared love and seek to create a co-parenting relationship where each will have access to Bear. But short of that, they need to jointly decide which one will be able to provide Bear with the best opportunity to enjoy a long, happy and healthy life.
David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on fathers’ rights and men’s issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.