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Custody decisions: Best interest of the child, dog, cat, bunny ...

If Timmy's parents divorced, who would get custody of Lassie? Would she go with Timmy's dad, the human who trained her so well? Or would she go with Timmy's mom, the human who fed Lassie and took her to the vet for her check-ups? Or, would she go wherever Timmy went? In the '50s, shared physical custody was rare, so perhaps Timmy's mom would have custody of Timmy, and the boy's dad would keep Lassie.

We ask because we have anecdotal evidence that backs up a 2006 survey about pet custody. The survey showed a marked increase across the country in pet custody cases between 2001 and 2006. And pet custody is a fairly untested area of the law, because pets are considered to be property in all 50 states -- even Illinois.

In some cases, that makes sense. At times, though, a family law attorney will find herself working out a custody agreement for a couple that treats the pet like a child. It's important, then, for attorneys to be sensitive to clients' attitudes about pets, but it's also important for couples to be honest with themselves and their attorneys about the pet's place in the family.

One attorney, who says he has seen a 15 percent increase in pet custody cases over the last five years, has a possible explanation. He believes the upward trend is linked to the growing number of unmarried couples living together, couples entering into civil unions and couples in same-sex marriages.

There's no research to back up his theory, but if more households than ever before have at least one pet, it makes sense that more couples who are splitting up have to decide who gets the pet.

How do family courts react? We'll discuss that in our next post.

Source: Associated Press, "Divorce lawyers: Pet custody cases increasing," Sue Manning, Feb. 28, 2012

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