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Courts treating animals more like children

Pet custody battles on the rise

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

An increasing number of animal-custody cases has created a cottage industry in the legal arena.
An increasing number of animal-custody cases has created a cottage industry in the legal arena.

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(Court TV) -- On the books, household pets have no more value than the coffee table or loveseat in your living room.

But recent lawsuits prove that animal companions occupy a much larger space in our hearts. More than ever, lengthy and expensive custody battles for pets are beginning when human relationships end. In courtrooms across the country, trials to decide who gets Sparky or Fido after a divorce resemble child-custody suits.

The growth of these cases is creating a niche-market for Web sites such as www.petcustody.com. On the site, pet owners can read up on the latest legal developments in animal law or download visitation forms and pre-nuptial agreements that deal specifically with pet custody.

"The whole societal view of companion animals as being more than just property is at the forefront," said Jeff Delott, a Jericho, New York, attorney who has handled cases involving "companion rights."

"We're seeing statutory laws, administrative laws, even tax laws that say animals are no longer property. There's a trend going on," Delott said.

Delott recently represented a plaintiff who had bought a cat with her roommate. More than a year after the roommate moved out, the two became embroiled in a custody battle for the feline. 

The long, costly suit ended in a victory for Delott's client, who won a five-figure settlement. "In a historic ruling, the court applied the best-interest standard, which is usually applied only in child-custody cases," Delott said.

"The judge was sympathetic to animal rights, but didn't want to make a big splash out of it," he said. "I had a 50-page brief in that case, and the last sentence was the kicker: 'You can't treat the breaking of the leg of a table the same way as breaking the leg of a puppy.'"

Charlotte Reed, a pet expert who writes the syndicated column, "Miss Fido Manners," which runs in publications such as Fido Friendly and American Magazine, attributes this growing attitude toward animal custody to pets' evolving status in the family.

"Right now there are more pets in this country than children, which speaks to a lot of issues in our lives," she said. "People don't want to have children. There are more single-sex couples now. Relationships and families are changing."

Reed also points out that not all pet custody disputes are as contentious as the case above.

"Most people are generally reasonable, once they get past the emotional issue and start thinking about what's best in the long-run for the pet," Reed said.

The factors that determine the best-case scenario for a pet are nearly identical to the considerations a child receives when it comes to a custody battle.

"When a couple asks me where I feel an animal would have a better life, I look at who would be a better pet-care provider," Reed said. "Who has the time, the money for a pet? Is it possible for them to share the animal? Much like the considerations for a child, really."


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