Breakups are difficult enough, but when you and your ex-partner have a pet that you both care for, deciding who gets the pet can become a serious issue. The deep bond that many people have with their pets is slowly but steadily being recognised by US law, and courts will determine custody arrangements for pets in the same way that they do for children. However, in most cases, it is preferable to try to reach an agreement with your former partner rather than allowing someone else to make the decision for you.
Method 1: Bargaining with Your Ex-Partner
1. Consider the relationship’s context. If your relationship with your ex-partner included physical or emotional abuse, negotiating pet custody with them directly may not be the best option for you.
Breakups are rarely completely amicable, but unless there are abuse issues, you should be able to persuade your ex to listen to reason.
However, if your ex-partner was abusive or you suspect they may have harmed your pet, contact an animal law attorney right away to learn your options.
You can find an attorney by conducting a general internet search for “animal law attorney” and your city or state’s name. You may also be able to find names through the online directory of your state or local bar association.
Animal law attorneys have been successful in obtaining restraining orders that include pets in some cases.
If you’re concerned about your pet’s and your own safety, consult with a family law attorney who has dealt with restraining orders. You can also seek assistance from a local domestic violence shelter.
2. Set up a private meeting. You should ideally discuss pet custody in a private setting where the two of you can discuss the issues at hand with as few distractions as possible.
You might want to pick a neutral setting, such as a local café or restaurant. Choose a time when you are both available, but avoid late nights or weekends when the place will be crowded.
When you schedule the meeting, let them know what you want to discuss. If they try to insult or demean you for making such a big deal about it, simply tell them that it means a lot to you and that you’d appreciate it if they gave you the benefit of the doubt and took you seriously.
Try to keep your conversation civil when you call to schedule the meeting. You want to meet and talk about the problem, but there’s no need to argue about it over the phone.
3. Do not give up ownership of your pet. Pets are considered property under state law. This means that, as with determining ownership of other items of personal property, the law favours the person in possession when it comes to pet custody.
You’ve probably heard the expression “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In most cases, this phrase is correct, and it also applies to the issue of pet custody.
If your ex-partner has already taken your pet, reaching an agreement together may be your best chance of getting your pet back.
If you have to take them to court and they already have possession of the animal, chances are the court will grant them custody.
4. Take written notes to serve as a guide. Pet care encompasses a wide range of issues, including food, activities, and veterinary care. Assuming that both of you love the pet and want what’s best for the animal, you should discuss all of these issues with your ex-spouse.
Make a timeline of your interactions with your pet, beginning with the first. This can assist you in developing arguments for why you should be granted pet custody following a divorce.
Assume you were the one who initially adopted the pet. Your ex-partner was initially hesitant and refused to have anything to do with it, but eventually came around and grew to love the animal.
In that case, the fact that you adopted the animal initially works in your favour. It also helps if you are the one who usually takes your pet to the vet or groomer and buys its food.
Money can be difficult to come by if you and your former partner shared a bank account. In that case, consider who provided the majority of the care and attention.
You should also consider which of you the animal is more attached to – though this is usually the person who feeds and cares for the pet the most.
5. Use a logical, objective approach. It may be difficult to keep your emotions in check if you are particularly attached to your pet, but try to look at the situation objectively and determine which of you is best suited to care for the animal.
Regardless of your feelings, if your ex-partner can take better care of your pet than you can, you may want to give them custody.
Just make it clear that you want to be able to visit your pet – for example, once a week and take the dog for a walk in the park.
If, on the other hand, you have the time and money to provide adequate care for your pet, use the reasons you wrote in your outline to explain to your former partner why you want custody of your pet.
6. Avoid offending your ex-partner. Breakups are rarely unavoidable. Tensions are bound to be high in any case, but you don’t want to turn your pet custody meeting into a shouting match.
Remember that you are there because you love and care for your pet. If your ex-partner didn’t care about the animal, they would have probably let you have it with no problem.
If you find yourself becoming angry or frustrated, return your focus to your pet. Keep your pet’s face in mind and keep in mind why you’re doing this.
It can also help to remind your ex-partner that you’re both there for your pet, not each other, if things get heated.
7. Make an effort to pay attention. Assume your ex-partner genuinely cares about your pet’s well-being. They may have serious reservations about your ability to care for the animal adequately.
You can only learn about these issues if you keep an open mind and listen carefully. If necessary, try to question your ex-partner in order to elicit their reasons for refusing to give you custody of your pet.
By listening to your ex-concerns, partner’s you may be able to come up with a solution that makes both of you happy while also putting your pet in the same position it was before the breakup.
Assume your ex-partner is concerned that you won’t have time to walk the dog during the day because you have a 30-minute commute to work and are gone all day.
In that case, you might be able to work out an arrangement in which your ex-partner comes over during the day to walk the dog. You could pay them a small sum in exchange (which could potentially save you from having to hire a stranger to walk your dog).
8. Any agreement should be in writing. When you sit down and discuss the situation rationally, you and your former partner should be able to reach an agreement on custody of your pet. If you do, create a written contract that both of you can sign.
It is not necessary to emphasise that a signed written agreement is legally binding. You don’t even need to hire a lawyer or draught a complicated contract full of legalese.
A simple agreement outlining what you’ve decided is sufficient. Include everything you’ve talked about when it comes to your pet’s care.
You should both sign it, and then make sure your former partner receives a copy of the signed agreement.
To avoid problems later, have someone witness the signatures or take a photo of each of you signing the agreement on your phone.
Method 2: Mediation Attempt
1. Find a local mediation centre. Most towns and cities have community mediation clinics that provide mediation services for common disputes, such as pet custody issues.
Search the internet or call the county court clerk’s office to find a community mediation centre near you.
You may come across several different service centres, especially if you live in a larger city. Examine their websites or call for more information to find the one that appeals to you the most.
You can also get a recommendation by contacting a local animal law attorney. They might have a preference for a particular mediation clinic.
The majority of community clinics are reasonably priced. A single mediation session can cost several hundred dollars, though many offer sliding-fee scales to help lower-income individuals.
2. Talk about mediation with your ex-partner. Because mediation is a voluntary process, you cannot compel your former partner to participate if they are unwilling. You can, however, tell them about it and do your best to persuade them that it is the simplest way to resolve the dispute.
The mediation centre you’ve chosen may have a pamphlet explaining their process and services in layman’s terms.
Remind your former partner that mediation will involve a neutral third party working with the two of you to find a mutually agreeable solution. They will not put you under any pressure to reach an agreement, and if you do not reach an agreement, you have the right to walk away.
Another advantage of mediation is that any agreement you reach is private. This may be useful if your ex-partner is concerned about how arguing about pet custody in a public forum, such as a courtroom, will appear.
3. Get ready for your session. If you tried to settle the dispute with your former partner in person, you may have notes from that attempt that you can use to frame the points you want to bring up in mediation.
A previous attempt can also assist you in isolating the pet custody issues that are particularly contentious.
It can help the mediator if you can identify areas of significant disagreement as opposed to minor issues where you can both find common ground.
Take some time to consider what you want to achieve with the medication. Perhaps your ideal outcome is that you have sole custody of your pet and that your ex-partner has no contact with either of you.
Given that the chances of that happening are slim (or you wouldn’t be here), try to think of some areas where you would be willing to compromise. You are free to present those ideas to the mediator.
4. Arrive on time for your mediation session. On the day of your mediation appointment, try to arrive at least 10 minutes early so you have time to find the right location and settle in before the session begins.
Mediation is not the same as going to court; the session is usually held in an office setting. However, make an effort to dress neatly and conservatively. You want the mediator to have a favourable opinion of you.
Bring any notes or other materials you intend to use in your negotiation with you. You should also bring a picture of your pet with you so you can look at it and concentrate on it during negotiations.
You will most likely be directed to a private room, though you may be required to wait in a waiting room. If your former partner is not yet present, you may meet with your mediator, but don’t expect to engage in conversation with them.
Your mediator will usually keep the conversation to a minimum in order to remain neutral and assist both of you in finding a mutually acceptable solution to your problem.
5. Make an opening statement. When you and your ex-partner arrive, the mediator will usually give you a brief introduction and explain the basic procedure. Then they may request that each of you make a brief opening statement.
Your opening statement does not have to be a lengthy, involved speech, as it would be in a courtroom. It should also not contain a single conclusory statement such as “I want full custody of my pet.” This type of statement is not appropriate for mediation.
Make a list of two or three points in your favour that you want to highlight. As an example, you could say “I believe I have full custody of the dog because I brought him home from the pound, named him, and fed him every day. I’ve taken him to the vet on a regular basis, and he’s registered in my name.”
This isn’t just about factual disagreements. If you’re lacking in such qualities, you might be able to cite your special bond with your pet. For example, you may notice that your cat sleeps with you every night and runs to the door when you get home from work.
6. Cooperate with the mediator. Following the conclusion of the initial part of the mediation, the mediator will usually ask you and your former partner to separate rooms so that the real work of mediation can begin.
Before you and your ex-partner separate rooms, the mediator may identify specific issues on which you and your ex-partner can agree.
If you can find common ground, it plants the seeds for future agreement and compromise – even if the issues you can agree on are minor ones.
After you’ve separated, the mediator will go back and forth between you, discussing the situation and looking for areas for compromise.
7. Sign a written contract. If you and your ex-partner can reach an agreement through mediation, the mediator will usually draught an agreement for you both to sign. Check that it accurately reflects everything you’ve discussed.
Your custody agreement can specify many different aspects of pet care, such as not only who gets to keep the animal in your home, but also what kind of food your pet can eat, as well as activities or specific veterinary services.
For example, your ex-partner may agree to give you custody of your dog if you promise to take him to his favourite park at least once a week.
Take this agreement seriously, even if it contains minor details, and understand that once signed, it is a legally binding document that can be enforced in a court of law.
Method 3: Proving Legal Ownership in Court
1. Determine the proper court. If you intend to sue your ex-partner for custody of your pet, you must first determine which court has jurisdiction over both your ex-partner and your dispute.
If you and your ex-partner were married and are divorcing, the issue of who gets the pet will come up in your divorce proceedings.
If you were not married, you must file a lawsuit on your own. Small claims courts are usually well-equipped to handle pet custody disputes.
Keep in mind, however, that small claims courts only award monetary damages. If you file a small claims lawsuit, you risk winning but only receiving the monetary value of your pet – rather than the pet itself.
Your county court has jurisdiction over these types of claims as well, and can order your former partner to return your pet to you if they currently have possession of the animal.
2. Speak with a lawyer. If you intend to seek custody of your pet through the courts, having an experienced animal law attorney on your side will give you the best chance of success. Even if you have a family law attorney for your divorce, an animal law attorney will be more knowledgeable about the intricacies of animal law in your state.
Remember that animal law is a relatively new area of the law. Unless you live in or near a large city, it may be difficult to find an attorney who specialises solely in animal law.
However, because animal law is new and rapidly changing, it’s critical to find someone who has litigated cases similar to yours.
Your local humane society or other animal rights nonprofit organisations may be able to connect you with an attorney who can assist you.
3. Make a claim for pet custody. If you want to sue your former partner for pet custody, you should do so as soon as possible after consulting with an attorney. You can start a lawsuit by filing a complaint with the clerk of the court where you want your case heard.
If you are not represented by an attorney, look for forms to draught your complaint at the clerk’s office or on the court’s website.
The complaint contains factual allegations that you believe, if proven, would grant you custody of your pet. Remember, this is a legal argument, so you must have facts that show you are the rightful owner of the animal.
When you file your lawsuit, you must pay a filing fee, which is usually several hundred dollars. If you are unable to pay this fee, request a fee waiver. Your court costs will be waived if your income and assets are below the court’s threshold.
Bring at least two copies of your complaint forms to the clerk’s office. The clerk will stamp all of them “filed” with the date and assign a date for you to appear in court the next time. They will then return your copies to you.
4. Have your ex-partner serve. One of the two copies of your court documents is for your personal use. The other copy must be served on your former partner using the proper legal process.
You can technically have anyone over the age of 18 who is not involved in your lawsuit hand-deliver the documents to your former partner. You could ask a trusted friend or relative.
After they have been served, they must sign a proof of service form, which you must file with the court.
You can also hire a sheriff’s deputy to hand-deliver the court documents to your ex-partner, or mail them certified mail with return receipt requested.
5. Keep an eye out for a response from your ex-partner. When your former partner receives your court documents, he or she has a limited time – usually only a few weeks – to file a written response to your lawsuit.
If your ex-partner fails to respond to your lawsuit, you may be able to win by default. You must, however, appear at your hearing on the scheduled date.
If your former partner files a written response, it will be served on you in the same manner as you served your former partner.
It is also likely that your ex-partner will contact you in order to reach an agreement rather than go to trial.
The other possibility is that your ex-partner will fight you every step of the way, even filing a motion to dismiss claiming that you have made no legal claim to ownership of your pet.
6. Collect evidence to back up your claim. The weight of the evidence determines whether a lawsuit is won or lost. In your lawsuit, you must demonstrate that you are the rightful owner of your pet and, as such, should be granted custody.
Depending on the court where you filed your lawsuit, you may be able to share evidence with your ex-partner during the discovery process.
However, unless your ex-partner has decided to fight you every step of the way, you shouldn’t expect this to be a lengthy process.
Proof that you adopted the pet, state registration or veterinary records that list only you as the owner, and even receipts for pet food and other pet supplies are all examples of evidence that will support your claim for pet custody in court.
7. Make your case in court. When your hearing date arrives, you will have the opportunity to tell the judge your storey and present evidence to demonstrate that you are entitled to full custody of your pet. If you have an attorney, your role in the proceedings may be limited, but you should still expect to testify.
Arrive at the courthouse at least 30 minutes before your hearing, but keep in mind that the judge will most likely be hearing several cases on the same day.
After passing through security, take a seat in the courtroom gallery until your case is called. Then you (and, if you have one, your attorney) can proceed to the front of the courtroom.
You can introduce evidence and even call witnesses to support your arguments, just like in any other trial. You could, for example, call a friend to testify about your relationship with your pet.
If you were the only person who ever took your pet to the veterinarian for care or treatment, your pet’s veterinarian or a veterinary assistant in their office can also be a good witness.
8. Pay attention to your ex-arguments. partner’s Following your presentation of your side of the storey, your former partner will be given the opportunity to respond. They may introduce evidence or even have witnesses testify on their behalf, just as you did.
When your ex-partner is speaking, keep an eye on your body language and try to pay attention. Avoid interrupting or shouting at your ex-partner, even if they interrupt you.
If your ex-partner calls any witnesses to testify on their behalf, you will be able to cross-examine them (via your attorney, if you have one). Pay close attention to their statements and draw on your own knowledge of the person called to call their reliability and the veracity of their statements into question.
9. Take the judge’s order. After hearing from both parties, the judge will issue an order determining who gets custody of your pet. You may learn the judge’s decision immediately following the conclusion of the hearing. However, the written order may take a few days to complete.
Remember that even if the judge rules in your favour, the court will not enforce the order for you; you must do so yourself.
An attorney can advise you on what to do if your ex-spouse does not immediately comply and return your pet to you.
If you filed your case in small claims court, you may be limited in your ability to appeal a decision that was not in your favour.
In any case, if the judge does not rule in your favour, you only have a certain amount of time to file an appeal – usually 30 days or less.
Contact an attorney right away to find out if you have grounds for an appeal.
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