I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: 'Til Pets Do We Part? Who gets custody of Fluffy or Fido in a divorce?

Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019
News 12 at 6 o'clock

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Pets are more than just pets. They've become important members of our family. That's why we're starting to see a shift in the way courts view our animals.

As our I-Team found, at least three states now have laws about what happens to pets when their owners get divorced. So far, Georgia and South Carolina are not on that list, even though more and more couples are heading to court to fight for custody of fur babies.

Every single time we ask for pet pictures, local pet parents deliver.

It's safe to say these pampered pooches and pussycats are living their best life.

At Woof Gang Bakery and Grooming in Augusta, pets can get the royal treatment.

"They're not just dogs," said employee Latasha Mayo. "They should be pampered. They should be spoiled. They should be treated like little babies, because they just give."

The law's take, however, is a bit different when it comes to Fluffy and Fido.

"It's essentially a piece of property to be divided in the case of a divorce or separation," said attorney PJ Campanaro.

About half of all marriages end in a split, "but you can't really split a living thing in half," she said. "So, we did it as a property case, but we were really litigating over a sweet little Yorkie."

Meanwhile, other warring couples come to their own truce. Campanaro says local judges on both sides of our river have approved parenting plans with pets.

"With visitation and everything, a long distance visitation where they drove to have visitation with the animals," Campanaro said.

But cats are another story.

"Cats don't seem to draw as much attention or love, but I've never had a client fight over a cat, or really want to fight over a cat," Campanaro said.

Maybe that's because cats tend to pick one person? That's the case with a grumpy guy in Meredith Anderson's house who loves her daughter but is not crazy about Meredith.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says only 5 percent of pet cases that go to court involve cats. 6 percent go to "other," meaning snakes, lizards, birds and turtles. Horses are just one percent, but dogs account for 88 percent of these court battles. These battles are becoming more and more frequent. It's why Illinois and Alaska passed laws in 2017 that gave courts more guidance when it came to the well-being of a pet during divorce proceedings.

On Jan. 1, 2019, a new law took effect in California, essentially no longer lumping pets in with cars or couches to televisions in a divorce. It also allows for shared custody.

"Stuff that happens in California usually happens in Georgia about five years later, so I guess we'll see what happens," Campanaro said.

No matter what happens with our laws, we'll keep treating our pets as members of the family.

"When you're happy, they're happy," said Latasha Mayo.

Campanaro also says our judicial system is overburdened, so more laws would mean more layers, and she doesn't see that happening because local judges are already approving shared custody for pets. All of the other attorneys our I-Team spoke with basically said the same thing. They say they think our current laws are sufficient.