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Dealing with Dogs in a Divorce

Dealing with Dogs in a Divorce

By Mary-Jane Gallagher

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 11.35.54 AMThe latest figures from Stats SA show that over 25,000 marriages in South Africa end in divorce annually. Given that there are about 8 million dogs in the country, thousands of pets each year are caught in the middle. Divorce is fraught with difficult negotiations and for those with dogs, the situation can become quite thorny.

Deciding on Custody

In a perfect world, a divorcing couple would be able to come to an amicable agreement on who should take custody of the dog, but naturally, divorces don’t always go so smoothly. Above all else the couple should remember the love and loyalty they each feel towards their dog as they negotiate its future. A dog should not be leverage to hurt the other party and the couple should endeavor to do what is best for the animal, even though it may be painful.

We view them as members of the family, but legally speaking pets are property. Ownership will be negotiated just as it would be for cars, houses, debts, mortgages, and other property. Uncontested divorces are far less expensive and take weeks, rather than years, to finalise. When a divorce is contested, the process can take 2-3 years with legal fees racking up along the way. Most contested divorces do end up being settled outside of court, and the decision on who gets custody of the dog is negotiated between lawyers, or ultimately decided upon by a judge. Many factors can come into play with this decision.

A Simple Matter of Ownership

In some cases, it comes down to a simple question of who purchased the pet. If the funds were the sole property of the wife at the time of purchase, then the dog has always been owned solely by the wife and should continue to be so. Timing of ownership is also a consideration. If the dog was owned by one party prior to the marriage and that party wants to maintain ownership, he or she would have a solid case for that.

Caretaking Duties During the Marriage

An arbitrator in a divorce may look at who was primarily responsible for the care of the dog to decide who should get ownership. The spouse who fed, walked, and bathed the dog would likely be seen as the reasonable choice to continue that care. Conversely, the party that rarely did those things would have a hard time convincing the other that it would be in the pet’s best interest to essentially get a new caregiver.

Personal Preference on Behalf of the Pet

If a decision cannot be made based on the more human aspects of this equation, it is not unheard of for the dog to ultimately make the decision. If the dog strongly favours one spouse over another, shouldn’t the pet be allowed to stay with them? A judge in Las Vegas once ordered the court marshal to take the dog and both parties to a nearby park. Custody would be awarded to the owner the dog ran to first.

Divorce is never easy, and when a couple has to contend with the added heartache of deciding who will get to keep the family pet, it is made all the more difficult. If possible, the couple should approach the question of pet custody with compassion for one another and, of course, for the dog involved.