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Fighting over Fido: Pet custody battles on the rise

There have always been plenty of things to fight over when a relationship falls apart. Now there’s a new custodial battleground: pets. “Animals are akin to children in terms of how people view them ,” an attorney said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

There have always been plenty of things to fight over when a marriage or relationship falls apart. Now, in addition to houses, money and cars, there’s a new custodial battleground: pets.

TODAY entertainment correspondent Jill Rappaport, a major animal lover herself, reported Thursday on the latest issue that’s being thrown before judges trying to sort out who gets what when relationships fail. In addition to a pre-nup agreement, Rappaport suggested to co-anchor Meredith Vieira, couples with pets should consider a pre-pup agreement as well.

It’s an important point, Rappaport said, because even though people become emotionally attached to pets as they do to children, courts tend to view animals as just another piece of property to be assigned to one litigant or the other.

Life without Dexter
Just ask Doreen Houseman. Two years ago, her fiancé told her he was leaving. They had a pet pug, Dexter. “He told me that I could have Dexter,” Houseman said.

“Dexter means to world to me,” she explained. “He was the best thing that could have happened to my life … I couldn’t imagine not seeing him.”

But then Houseman’s fiancé learned that Houseman had been seeing another man. “It upset him,” she said. “He called me and started yelling and said that I would never see Dexter again.”

Houseman went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her beloved pet. Her fiancé had purchased Dexter, which made the animal his, the judge ruled.

“The judge said he did not want to know about the emotional attachment,” explained Houseman’s attorney, Gina Calogero. “He didn't want to consider it, because to him, the dog was no different from a chair or a couch. They're not people. They're not children.”

Houseman’s ex-fiancé chose not to be interviewed, but his lawyer sent a statement to TODAY that read: “My client purchased [Dexter] with his own funds, had him registered, paid for all veterinary care, and values him as a loyal companion. My client adamantly denies that he ever gave or agreed to give Dexter to his ex-fiancée after their breakup ... Dexter is exactly where he should be.”

Who gets Bobesh?Fortunately for Mark Haskoor, not all judges are as coldhearted. When he broke up with his wife, he was devastated when she told him she was keeping their dog, Bobesh.

“We got Bobesh when we were together, and then when we separated, she had taken him with her,” Haskoor said. “When I asked to start seeing Bobesh again, the answer was no.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks. He’s my best friend. He's part of my family. I’m not willing to let that go.”

Like Houseman, Haskoor took his case to court. But unlike Houseman, he found a sympathetic judge who worked out a joint custody agreement for Bobesh, treating the pet as if it were a child.

“The way the laws are, it’s a crapshoot,” Haskoor said. “You have to hire a good lawyer that’s willing to take the case, and hope that it gets in front of a judge that’s willing to listen to it. Without those two components, you have nothing.

“I was very lucky to get a judge who either was a very good animal lover, or he just realized that this is a serious thing to people.”

Haskoor’s attorney, Kate McDonough, said that the courts need to consider the emotional attachment people have for their pets, because the issue is becoming increasingly common in divorces.

“There has been an explosion in the court systems of people who want to litigate time sharing and legal ownership of family pets,” McDonough said. “There is some movement in the past years to bring to the courts’ attention the fact that animals, and most often dogs, are really akin to children in terms of how people view them affectionately and emotionally.”

Rappaport said these are cautionary tales that people entering relationships should keep in mind.

“Now all the lawyers say whether you’re married or not, it is always best to have everything spelled out in a written agreement — a sort of pre-nup for your pet,” she said.