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Considering the best interests of pets in a marital break-up

For many divorcing couples, one of the most difficult and emotional decisions they have to make is who will get custody of the family pets. Under the law, they are considered property. Therefore, decisions regarding who gets the companion animals, if left to a judge to decide, are often based on who purchased and financially supports the pets rather than what is in their best interests. However, for many people, pets are part of the family.

One estate planning attorney suggests that one way to avoid having pet custody decisions determined by a judge is to draw up a "love contract" that includes a pet clause. It's similar to a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.

The pet clause would take into consideration things like who spends the most time with the animal, who has a better, healthier relationship with it and who does the bulk of caring for it. If there are also children, it's generally best to provide for similar pet and child custody arrangements. Some couples arrive at an alternating custody arrangement, while others opt to keep the animal in one home, with the other spouse having visitation rights.

Regardless of when you are drafting this agreement or making the decision while in the midst of a break-up, you may need an impartial arbiter like an attorney step in to help you arrive at a decision. It's nearly always best for a couple to make the decision, as with other decisions around their divorce, themselves with the help of their legal representatives, than to leave them to a judge who doesn't know your or your family situation.

Some judges have started looking at what is in the best interests of companion animals in making their decisions. There are also moves in some states to enact laws that would mandate such considerations when determining pet custody. However, in the meantime, why put your pet's future in the hands of a judge who may not even like animals and doesn't understand who can be the better pet parent.

Your Maryland family law attorney can help you draw up an agreement that covers the care and custody of your companion animals in the event of a break-up. If you're already in the midst of a divorce, he or she can help you work out with your spouse what will be best for your pet and your family.

Source: Huffington Post, "A Love Contract to Help Pets Deal With Parents' Breakup," Ann Margaret Carrozza, June 30, 2015

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