Recently the ownership of the family pet has brought the divorce of Brooklyn couple James O’Hanlon and Susan McCarthy to a standstill, instigating an all-out family war surrounding the divorce. Raising questions about pet ownership and provoking thoughts about pets in divorce.
Lucy the dog is almost 3 years-old, and possibly one of the most loved family pets in the world currently. A mixture of a golden-retriever and poodle this “goldendoodle” was entrusted into the care of Margaret Healy, O’Hanlon’s sister, at the start of the divorce in 2009. The family’s other dog Lady, came along as well. It was the sudden, and recent, death of Lady which prompted the feuding between the family over the remaining, cherished, Lucy.
Healy has recently made a court request to become the sole owner of the pup as she has now taken care of it without assistance from the family for just over two years and claims the family never made any attempt to see it.
But, Slaney O’Hanlon, Healy’s 18 year-old niece and daughter of the divorcing couple claims that the dog is actually hers, and her aunt was simply looking after the animal during the divorce proceedings because she was off at school and was unable to keep the dog. She claims this is her father’s attempt at pulling her into the divorce and the dog is rightfully hers.
The feud escalated here with familial name-calling and public expletives being only part of the equation. Accusations of dog-napping and other crimes related to the pup fly back and forth between the family. The whole ordeal prompted Healy to file papers in Brooklyn Supreme Court asking to be affirmed as Lucy’s sole owner and for a restraining order against her niece and McCarthy.
She’s also demanding $500,000 in damages.
Healy said that she initially thought she would only keep Lucy briefly, but as months turned into years, she licensed the dog in her name and formed a strong bond.
Slaney O’Hanlon countered that a chip implanted in Lucy names her as the owner. She argues that she was barred from checking on her pet because Healy’s husband represents her dad in the divorce action.
Dealing with pets in divorce raises interesting legal questions for family law courts. Despite the love and affection people feel for their pets being very real and tangible, as seen in the case of the O’Hanlon’s, for the courts it is an odd tension between custody and property when it comes to who gets the animal in a divorce.
According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, attorneys have seen a 23 percent jump in pet custody cases. Harvard even has a course teaching animal law. Issues can range from visitation rights to how vet bills are split. Another consideration is how long treatment should be kept to maintain life before putting an animal to sleep. But the biggest battles are for which spouse gets custody.
Courts are beginning to really consider what is best for the pet in divorce, looking at which parent is more stable, and even dividing time between the owners. The love of a family pet is not something to be discounted, especially in divorce.
“I’ve had cases where that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, where they’ve settled the residency of the children, they’ve settled the finances, the antiques and the paintings, the cars and the holiday homes, and then they fight over the pet — and one of them says the whole deal is off, we’re going to court,” he told a local newspaper.