When Pets Are Part of the Family
A new divorce client came into my office to begin the divorce process. A high-income, high net-worth professional, he and his wife had been through counseling, valued their relationship, and decided that they wanted a divorce. They had been “nesting” for over a year, meaning that their three children, ages 8, 11 and 13, stayed in the marital home and the parents moved in and out, staying in an apartment nearby.
Our meeting began very business-like as he calmly answered my questions about real estate, retirement accounts, and investments. After the basics, I said, “Is there anything else you’d like to share?” Long pause. He said, “We have three cats,” his eyes filling with tears.
During our conversation, he realized that once they stopped nesting, there would be two homes. While most of the tough issues had been handled before he walked in the door, they never talked about the cats. In the next twenty minutes of our time together, he shared the history of how they got the cats, temperament of each cat, how they form part of the family. He feared the wife would use the cats in the negotiations. Anger reared its head a few times when he learned that “the law” considers pets to be “personal property.” He had no “rights” to the cats if they stayed in the marital home with the wife.
By the end of our initial meeting, he understood that a negotiated divorce was going to serve his needs best. We decided that using Collaborative Law would allow him and his wife to include the care and enjoyment of the cats in the divorce settlement. He was willing to make financial concessions to make sure he could spend time with the cats. Fast forward to the end of their divorce – this couple reached a full settlement of all their issues – including “liberal and flexible visitation” with the cats. Their collaborative team honored the pets as part of the family.
In another one of my cases, the family decided to have the dog go back and forth to each parent’s home with the children. They shared expenses related to the care of the dog – vet bills and its organic food. That outcome would not likely have been issued by a Judge in a contested proceeding. In fact, the Judge would probably not want to hear about the dog.
The Collaborative process allows people to create agreements that work for their family. When the family includes pets, the needs of the pets matter and the role the pet plays in each family member’s life is honored.
Theresa Beran Kulat, founder and lead attorney at Trinity Family Law, P.C. in Downers Grove, focuses on Collaborative Practice and Mediation and limits her practice to settling cases. She also provides coaching services. Please visit www.TrinityFamilyLaw.com or call 630-960-4656 to learn more.