DennisBeaverDecember 03, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

One of the strangest “family law” cases I have ever dealt with involved the custody of 13 cats, owned by a high school teacher and her pharmacist husband. They were a childless couple with an almost parental love of the many cute little kittens adopted during their 10-year marriage.

But not even cuddly kitties could keep this marriage intact, and the Mrs. filed for divorce. While at first reasonably amicable — property issues moving along smoothly — when she discovered that hubby was not only bisexual but about to host his own “coming out” party, things turned nasty. I represented the husband.

At our “meet and confer,” where the lawyers and couple try to resolve remaining issues, suddenly the wife went berserk — on me! I was called some of the “nicest” things imaginable! And then the real work began: Who would get custody of the cats???

This week and next, we’re going to take a look a legal issue which historically courts didn’t treat all that seriously. But now they do, in some instances looking at the same factors for custody of pets as for children. So, let the purr and the fur, fly.

Little Miss Wrinkles

Jack and Jill — their real names — were college students in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Aside from the humor attached with names and place of residence, both were at one of the best stages ever in life: young, attending college, in love and living together along with Little Miss Wrinkles, “one of the ugliest, yet cutest dogs on the planet,” Jack explained while we were on a conference call. It was the name they chose for their pet which said it all; Little Miss Wrinkles is a Chinese Shar-Pei.

“The breed resembles a large, moving bag of wrinkled fur,” Jill explained. “Or a dog version of a kid’s slinky,” Jack tossed in.

The couple was going their separate ways. While they “agreed on everything, security deposit and bills,” there was one remaining issue: “Who gets Little Miss Wrinkles?”

“We both love her, and I never thought it would be possible to love a dog this way, almost as if it was a real person,” Jack added. By that point in our discussion, their voices took on that unmistakable nasal quality of people on the verge of tears.

“We are both from the same town where your column has appeared for years, and our parents suggested we speak with you. We will do whatever you say,” they said.

I thought of King Solomon.

Pets are things to the law

Part of a lawyer’s title is “counselor at law,” and yet, too often it is the counseling aspect of what we do that’s overlooked. The couple needed to understand how the law unemotionally deals with ownership of animals. For a legal analysis of these issues, I turned to attorney Stephan Otto, with the 120,000-member Animal Legal Defense Fund based in California.

“Especially where we have an unmarried couple going in different directions — to gain custody, you need to prove ownership. It’s who actually owns the animal in the eyes of the law,” she explained, setting out these methods of proof:

(1) Adoption applications or sales contracts: Whose name appears on the paperwork obtained from the pet store, shelter or breeder? Are there records available to prove who paid the adoption fees?

(2) Governmental licensing fees: If licensed, someone paid a fee, and their name is on the license application, which is strong evidence. City or county records can generally be obtained at a small cost.

(3) Veterinarian bills: Who took Fido to the vet? Who made the appointments? Who paid the bill? Who picked him up after treatment? Get copies of those records from the doctor’s office

(4) Microchips: If an identification chip has been implanted into the animal, there is a registry. Obtain a copy of any information listed.

(5) Was the pet a gift? If a birthday or Christmas present, do we still have the accompanying card, or possibly a video when the box was opened and out crawled Fido, along with words from the donor, such as “I hope you love my gift!”

(6) Ownership agreement: While too late in this case, unmarried couples or roommates who are considering buying a pet can draft an ownership agreement that sets out what happens if they go their separate ways. There are lots of them online.

And where the couple is either married or in a domestic partnership? We’ll look at how the law handles those situations next time, as well as tell you what happened to the 13 cats.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.