Vets & Pets of Divorce: Tips to Help Veterinarians Stay Out of the Fray & Avoid Confrontation

Debra A. Vey Voda-Hamilton, Esq./Mediator, Hamilton Law & Mediation, PLLC

July 2016|Diversity|Peer Reviewed

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Vets & Pets of Divorce: Tips to Help Veterinarians Stay Out of the Fray & Avoid Confrontation
TEACHING TARGET:

Owners may consider pets part of the family, but the law considers them property. It is imperative that veterinary practices take steps to protect the team when divorce calls ownership into question.

In 2015, 65% of US households owned pets and pet owners spent $60.28 billion on the care of their companion animals, $15 billion of which was spent on veterinary care. In addition, approximately 1 in every 3.6 marriages ends in divorce.1 

Given these numbers, pets are now becoming part of some divorce proceedings. However, understanding the importance of these statistics is only one piece of the puzzle. Veterinarians have a delicate balancing act between the practice of medicine and the avoidance of pet custody conflict. Typically, a veterinarian is not involved in a client divorce, but he or she may become intertwined if financial responsibility, ownership, and possession of the pet are called into question because of a pending divorce.

Part of the Family

Owners now consider pets family members, companions, and in some cases, surrogate children. Many prefer to vacation with their pets, frequent pet-friendly resorts, and live in pet-friendly buildings and neighborhoods. Some check for dog walkers and dog parks near their homes similar to the way parents check for appropriate school districts for their children.2,3

Related Article: How to Show Clients Sincere Empathy

Mechanic or Pediatrician?

Bernard Rollin, PhD, posed the question whether veterinarians are mechanics or pediatricians.9

Applying this question to the problem of divorce and the family pet, will a veterinarian act like a:

  • Pediatrician, by taking proactive steps to care for the patients of divorce by obtaining and following the owners’ wishes and ensuring the pet stays with the correct owner; or a
  • Mechanic, who places payment above all and maintains an arm’s length in any dispute involving the pet of divorce, thus staying out of the fray.

Veterinarians can balance delicately between the practice of medicine and the conflict of divorce by proactively securing information that will ensure their practice stays out of the fray of divorce.

Although the reality of pet ownership in the 21st century may support a deeply held relationship with pets, their status remains relatively unchanged and they are typically found to be property under the law, even though most owners do not view them that way. Veterinarians should take proactive steps to familiarize themselves with the status of their state’s laws involving companion animals in divorce. A 2009 legal article4 stated that “the issue is increasingly becoming a source of frequent disagreement between divorcing couples, and courts are being asked to a greater extent than ever to make a determination as to which human caretaker should retain custody of the companion animals.”

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Animal Custody Cases

If a veterinary team does not have a close client connection, the veterinarian and other team members may be unaware a divorce is pending and unwittingly treat or release a patient based on past history without knowing a particular client does not have the right to authorize treatment or possess the animal.

The state of the law surrounding companion animal ownership in divorce is difficult to clearly ascertain, and court views regarding the status of companion animals in divorce differ markedly across the US. One court thought custody of an animal was not a “justiciable issue” and a waste of the court’s time.5 The judge’s advice was to “go out and buy another dog.” Many judges followed suit and threw out or left unaddressed the question of ownership. In another case, the court decided custody of the pet using a “best interest of all” test and found in favor of the primary caregiver.6 Another court, during a 1-day hearing, asked a couple to find a way to share the animal using a court-appointed referee.7 If courts have difficulty deciding who owns a companion animal and defer to a referee, how can a veterinarian determine ownership in his or her practice?

Another issue that arises is the splitting up of 2 pets, with 1 going to each party. Law professor Rebecca Huss was asked by a court to decide whether the separation of 2 dogs would have any emotional effect on the animals. She asked the court to order a veterinarian to examine the animals to determine the answer.8

Related Article: Career Opportunities in Veterinary Forensic Medicine

Proactive Protocols

The easiest way to address problems that may arise and have peace of mind is to collect or update information during each client visit. With protocols in place, the veterinarian meets his or her responsibility of best practices if relationships between couples, married or unmarried, go awry. By proactively confirming a patient’s owner and the marital or relationship status during each visit, office documents provide team members with current information to protect the practice. It is better to be proactive and not rely on the owner to pass along the information—having up-to-date information can save a practice from being pulled into a fight over the pet.

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Practice Defense

How can a veterinary practice of any size proactively build protective steps into its intake and yearly update system to help navigate the care of pets of divorce? Veterinarians can take these 3 simple steps to help weather the storm:

  • Identify the pet’s primary owner at initial registration.
  • Have the owner list 2 to 3 alternate people with permission to pick up and/or pay for the veterinary services, which helps the practice if a client is delayed and a spouse, significant other, or trusted friend picks up or pays for the pet’s care.
  • Initiate a systematic yearly review of client information expanded to include the spouse or significant other and an approved alternate contact who can collect the pet.

Most practices already have the first step in place, as it is necessary under veterinary ethics to establish a veterinarian–client relationship.

The second step is2 an important, yet often overlooked, piece of information a veterinarian should gather. Obtain the names of 2 or 3 people with permission to pick up a pet. This helps the practice run smoothly in general, not just when a relationship is affected by divorce, and enables a veterinarian to release the animal to a pre-approved caregiver if the primary owner is unavailable or absent. The veterinarian should explain that this prepares the practice and the clients for any eventuality.

Related Article: 3 Ways Great Medical Records Can Protect Your License

The third step, creating a questionnaire that updates ownership and alternate caregivers annually, allows the veterinarian to initiate a self-protective best-practice protocol. The pet owner can update his or her information without making it obvious that alerting the practice of any changes is her or her responsibility. However, making an annual update to information sheets (eg, name, address, cell phone number, email address) a practice requirement does put the onus on the pet owner. It may be a subtle difference in language, yet responsibility for updating the information is shifted to the client. 

Conclusion

When all steps are followed, the practice will function more smoothly if questions about patient release arise. The veterinary team will be able to produce a written document created by the pet owner at the veterinarian’s request, putting the veterinarian, client, and patient in the best position for maintaining everyone’s safety and protection. This is an easy means of instituting service protection for team members and clients alike, especially in the event of a client divorce.

Related Article: Tackling Tough Topics with Clients

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