Ask any divorce lawyer what are the most important issues in a divorce case, and you'll typically get two answers: determining the parenting plan for children, and determining how to divide assets.
One thing that typically doesn't get addressed is an issue that falls in between, and that's family pets.
Texas law regards animals as property, and many lawyers think of a cow in a herd or a sheep in a flock as merely an income producer. But when you're talking about a beloved companion animal treated more like an additional child, the property designation just doesn't cut it. At the very least, a family pet should be regarded with the same regard as a unique family heirloom, to acknowledge the uniqueness of a particular dog or cat to the family. (After all, monetary compensation in the amount of what you've spent on veterinary bills for certainly doesn't adequately replace that animal!)
In our practice, we account for non-human companions from the get-go. We make sure that there are protections in our standing orders for the animals, not only to safeguard against abuse, but to make sure that the pets stay with the family until details of the divorce are finalized.
In many divorce cases, the parent designated the custodial parent will typically end up with the family companion, so that the children have access to their furry therapist. However, in a great number of cases, there's nothing in the language of the divorce decree that even addresses the family pet. We make sure it's something that's addressed, even to where the non-custodial parent may have visitation schedules similar to what he or she has with the children.
Those schedules for companion animals can be a little more complicated and can involve more contact between exes. After all, for school-aged children, one parent usually drops the children off at school and the other parent will pick up the children at school, meaning that there's a school-day buffer eliminating a direct exchange. That doesn't quite work the same with the animals.
Divorcing couples also need to work out the realities of pet care. Splitting up pet insurance and vet bills is most analogous to working out medical care for children. Typically, there's some sort of 50/50 arrangement involving each parent paying half at the outset, or the custodial parent paying and then the non-custodial parent reimbursing for half the amount.
It's a line item that should be worked into divorce decrees, though, and it's something that couples should discuss along with parenting plans. For couples going through collaborative law or mediation, it becomes part of the overall negotiation. For our clients who go through litigation, we make it part of the overall case we're presenting, and we've already won cases with provisions for visitation with animals in the final decree.
We see the companion issue as a significant concern regardless of the size of the family. It's more than just reconciling a question that might create friction between couples. It's accounting for a loving member of the family, and making sure that the companion's relationship with all members of the family is preserved. We have all researched the effect of separation on grieving animals; it's important to that the best science be shared with our clients as they make these decisions.
Companion animals do not understand divorce in the same way that children come to, but they can perceive a difference in the household when the divorce process starts, and it's important to account for that. Animals can be vital in the healing process after a divorce for everyone in the family, and so making sure they're part of that for everyone is important.