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'Pup-Nups' Help Solve Pet Custody Disputes

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – When Isaac Ott of North Fayette separated from his wife, there was one thing that he really wanted that his ex wanted, too – a 9-year-old English mastiff named Diamond.

"She didn't want to give the dog up because she loves the dog to death," Ott told KDKA's Jon Delano. "I love the dog because it's my dog, and we had a fight over the dog."

Fights over the family pet are often at the heart of the dispute as couples split, says family law attorney Amanda DeMello.

"Much more important than most people would think," noted DeMello. "We've had a lot of clients here at my firm specifically that their pets are very important to them. It's like another child to them."

Almost every pet owner can identify with that, especially if the pet is equally loved by all family members. Families cannot begin to figure out what to do if there's a split.

And here's another problem — the courts don't want to figure that out either.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kim Eaton says a pet like her dog, Charley, cannot be treated like a child. Under the law, it's just property like a car or furniture.

"The legislature gives me 16 factors to look at as to who gets the kids, and because now Charley is a piece of furniture we have to make up ways as to who should get Charley and why," the judge said.

So most judges avoid making any decision at all about who gets the pet, leaving the couple to negotiate a deal.

"A lot of times these issues can be dealt with between the parties," added DeMello, "and it doesn't get to the level where it has to go to court."

But animal rights attorney Gina Calogero says it's best to settle this before marriage in something called a "pup-nup."

"The advantage of a pup-nup is that you're negotiating it while you're still in a relationship and you know what's in the dog's best interest," says Calogero.

It's like a pre-nup for couples except in a pup-nup or pre-pup the couple agrees who gets the pet before the animal comes home.

"If you want to enter into a pre-nuptial agreement and you're the kind of person that wants to do that, you might as well put your pet in that then," says DeMello.

Some simple rules also work.

For example, if you bought the pet before marriage, you are likely to take it out of the marriage.

And sometimes parents cut a deal to let the dog go with whomever has custody of the children.

"When there are kids, we can usually work out something where the dog follows the kids," notes Judge Eaton.

Isaac Ott's kids were grown, and although, he purchased the dog before his marriage, his ex claimed the dog was a gift to her.

So when his ex kept physical possession of Diamond, says Ott, "Of course, I wanted my dog back. I had to fight for my dog."

Ott's ex would not return the dog.

Without a pup-nup, Ott's lawyer tried to ask Judge Eaton for special relief, but the judge says she tells disputing parties to work it out themselves, and nine out of 10 times, "they work out their own little custody agreement for the dog."

Ott did that by reconciling with his ex.

"We worked things out. Diamond's in a great home, and she's loved by two people," says Ott.

A rare happy ending in a situation whether there is often a winner and loser.

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