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Divorce and Separation: Who gets to keep the family pet?

Conflicts over a pet can be just as serious to divorcing spouses or separating couples as any other issue. Many couples consider their pet to be a family member or child and it can be difficult to come to a mutual agreement about which person should keep the pet. Unlike real children, for which specific laws about custody and visitation exist, pet custody issues have been largely ignored by domestic relations and civil laws.

In Ohio, pets are considered to be personal property like your chair or toaster oven. Thus, when couples are dividing their property due to divorce or separation, courts usually follow the same guidelines they use to determine who gets to keep personal property when deciding issues about pet custody.

Pet Parenting/Custody Agreements

Coming to an agreement about pet custody and visitation can help to avoid unnecessary litigation costs and stress. A “pet parenting plan” allows couples to make joint decisions about custody, visitation rights, who pays for pet expenses (vet bills, grooming), etc. A pet parenting plan is a formalized contract, and can even be incorporated into dissolution or divorce agreements.

Court Intervention

In the event that the parties cannot come to an agreement, parties can seek to have a court decide issues related to pet custody. Some courts are becoming more open-minded and taking into consideration factors that can help them reach a determination about where a pet will live. In some states, courts have awarded shared custody or visitation rights after reviewing evidence and testimony provided by the pet’s owners and expert witnesses regarding what is in the pet’s best long term interest.

However, it is important to note that courts have no specific power to take into account the pet’s best interests since pets are considered “property.” Reaching an agreement out of court nearly always results in a better outcome for pets and their people.

For more information, contact our offices in Fairlawn and Sharon Center at (877) 239-4480. We help clients resolve animal custody disputes throughout northeast Ohio.

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Severe dog starvation case resolved, Jesse Fry goes to jail

State v. Jesse Fry, a case we prosecuted for the Medina County SPCA.

Fry’s dog “Chronos,” now known as “Brutus,” was kept in a crate too small to stand up in, forcing the dog to lay in his own excrement. He suffered a urine scald and brown urine and feces stains were visible on his body. Today, months after this case began, some of the stains are still visible.

Brutus was severely emaciated. Ordinarily, the body condition score for a live dog ranges from 1-9. Brutus’ BCS was unusually described as a “0” out of 9 on the scale, because of his exceptionally poor body condition. Treating staff were astonished that Brutus was still alive.

Defendant was found guilty of four counts of companion animal cruelty, including a first degree misdemeanor count.

Defendant was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 81 of which were suspended. Fry will serve 9 days. Fry must also complete 50 hours of community service, and pay a $100 fine, court costs, and $889.27 in restitution for Brutus’ care. Fry was placed on 5 years of active probation, during which time he cannot own, keep, possess, or reside with any animals, will be subject to random inspections, and must undergo a mental health assessment. He must find a new place to live within 60 days to comply with the requirement that he cannot reside with animals.

Fry is prohibited from owning companion animals indefinitely.

The first picture in this series is Brutus during his first veterinary visit. The second photograph is after a few days of treatment. The last picture depicts Brutus today, still in recovery. Brutus has been adopted by a veterinary technician that cared for him.

Starved dog Wadsworth Ohio

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Medina, Ohio Attorney Learns About Psychiatric Disorders in Children

Attorney Janis Zachman recently attended a class on psychiatric disorders in children.

The curriculum included information on internalizing/emotional disorders (such as anxiety or mood disturbances), externalizing/behavioral disorders (such as disruptive disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)  and trauma based disorders (such as reactive attachment), along with proven treatments.

The class was in fulfillment of her recertification as an Ohio Guardian ad Litem.  

This information is timely in our community as several of our area high schools deal with teen suicides.

Parents, child advocates and high school students are encouraged to learn more about depression and other indicators of risk for teen suicide at an E4 Youth Summit, sponsored by Medina County United Way on February 18-19 at the Blair Center in Westfield.    E4 stands for Equip, Educate. Empower and Engage.

All Medina County high school students are eligible to apply to participate.  Applications are available at each high school or by email from the United Way at kjones@unitedwaymedina.org.

For more information on teen suicide in Medina County, see Medina Gazette: United Way: County failing to address teen suicide

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What if…? Ohio pet trusts provide care for animals when their owners can’t.

Have you ever been concerned about what would happen to your pet if something unexpected happened to you? Ohio law now allows pet owners to create a trust to provide for the care and maintenance of pets if the owner can no longer care for them, be it due to death or other incapacitation. This type of trust is protected by statute and is legally enforceable (Ohio Revised Code Section 5804.08). Commonly known as “pet trusts,” these trusts can cover any type of pet (including tarantulas). A pet trust is a legal vessel that describes your wishes regarding the care of your pet and distributes provided funds to enable that care. A pet trust can be created during the owner’s lifetime or created at the time of the owner’s death via a will.

Some important items pet owners should consider when thinking about forming a pet trust:
1. Who will you name as the trustee? What about an alternate? The trustee is the person charged with following the directions set forth in your trust. The trustee may be paid a reasonable fee, or may serve without compensation.

2. Who will be the caretaker for your pets? The caretaker may be the same as or different from the trustee. If the caretaker and trustee are different people, the trustee could have the authority to remove the pets from one caretaker and appoint a new caretaker if the trustee is dissatisfied with their care.

3. Specific instructions you might have for the care of your pets. You may wish to specify whether or not the caretaker should be permitted to allow animals to breed, for instance, or whether they should be kept in a private residence, as opposed to a rescue facility. Typically, a pet owner will give the caretaker wide discretion to provide care in a manner that the caretaker sees fit, in his/her best judgment.

4. The amount you are willing to pay out of the trust to the caretaker for providing care for your animals.

5. The person or organization who will receive any remaining trust assets upon termination of your trust (which should be at the death of the last animal covered by the trust).

Once these items are resolved, you will need to decide what assets (monies, etc.) you are willing to use to fund the trust.

Pet trusts allow you to plan for your pet’s future and ensure that your pet will be cared for in the way you desire. Pet owners can finally create and control the answer to the troubling “what if…?” question and have peace of mind about the care of their pets.

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Attorney discussion on Guardian ad Litem work in Medina

One of our attorneys, Janis Zachman, was a guest on Mary Kovach’s Family Forum last month. The discussion centered on Guardian ad Litem work. Janis has acted as a Guardian ad Litem for over 18 years. She has also been selected to participate in the Ohio Supreme Court’s Domestic Relations Summit initiative in 2013-14. Areas of interest will include domestic violence, pro se litigants, case management, and high conflict cases involving children.

You can watch the forum via this link:
October Medina Family Forum: Guardian ad Litem

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Dogs bite! When can you recover for a dog bite in Ohio?

In Ohio, there are two means of recovery for those who have suffered from a dog bite, attack, mauling, or other injury to themselves or their property (including their pets!).

(1) State Statute
Under Ohio’s state statutes, specifically Section 955.28(B) of the Ohio Revised Code, a dog’s owner, keeper, and/or harborer is strictly liable for any harm the dog causes unless the person who suffered the injury was:
-committing or attempting to commit criminal trespass or another criminal offense other than a minor misdemeanor on the property of the owner, keeper, or harborer;
-committing or attempting to commit a criminal offense other than a minor misdemeanor against any person; or
-teasing, tormenting, or abusing the dog on the owner’s, keeper’s, or harborer’s property.

Further, the statute does not limit recovery to injury from just dog bites–recovery can be sought for any injury to a person or property that is caused by the dog (subject to the above exceptions).

(2) Common Law
Under common law, dogs essentially get “one free bite.” The injured person needs to prove that the dog’s owner knew the dog was vicious and that the owner was negligent in handling/keeping the dog. Thus, common law claims can be far more difficult to prove.

Fortunately, injured parties can pursue a case under either or both laws.

One major difference is that common law allows the injured party to recover money for “punitive damages” (money awarded to “punish” the dog owner) as well as compensation for injuries.

If an injured party pursues a case only under Ohio’s statutory law, the party cannot recover punitive damages.

Generally, noting the exceptions above, a person damaged by a dog bite is entitled to full compensation for their injuries under either theory. Compensation includes both payment medical bills, lost wages, related out-of-pocket expenses and scarring, “pain and suffering,” etc.

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