Pet Custody in Divorce – Who Gets the Family Beagle?

Pet Custody in DivorceMany families include members with four paws instead of hands and feet. Pet custody or pet possession issues are seeing more litigation in divorce courtrooms in recent years.

In a recent survey from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, more than 25 percent of attorneys report they noticed an increase in the number of couples who have fought over pet custody during the past five years.

Some courts across the United States are changing their approach to the pet custody issue.

You get the Crockpot. I get the Cat.

Like most states, Nebraska considers pets to be personal property, so they are technically subject to the same rules of equitable division in a divorce case as would be a crockpot or a living room furniture set.

Also, like any other personal property, because a dog can’t be split in half, if divorcing couples can’t agree on who gets custody of a pet after the divorce, some courts will force the pet to be sold and the proceeds of the sale divided between the parties.

But You’ve Never Loved a Casserole Dish Like This 

As attitudes toward pets change and they are seen as more part of the family, the legal analysis is showing signs of changing, too. Some courts are recognizing that pets aren’t quite the same as a casserole dish or a car.

There are feelings attached to pets and many believe those feelings run both ways – not just from the human to the pet, but from the pet to the human as well.

Best Interests Arguments – for Children and Chihuahuas

Courts in some states are starting to treat pets – usually dogs – almost in the same way as children when it comes to pet custody and considering the best interests of the animal in the pet custody decision. Some judges have even awarded visitation rights or joint custody. Because pets are still considered property, however, courts will usually term it something else, like “alternating possession.”

In some cases where child custody is also at issue, there may be an argument that that what’s in the best interest of the child may include custody of the pet.

How Scooping Poop Could Win Your Pet Custody Case

Many courts just don’t have the time to monitor ongoing disputes that could arise over time when there are pet visitation or joint pet custody arrangements for a pet in a divorce case. Also, the court’s packed calendar may make it necessary to deal with the pet possession issue as expediently as possible at trial. As a result, some courts will look at equitable principals to determine who has the better claim to ownership.

Most often the court will look at factors like who was the animal’s primary caregiver – who walked the dog, scooped the poop, took the dog or cat to the vet and the groomer, bought the food, etc. Saying that scooping poop could win your case may be a bit of an overstatement, but it could be a factor in proving that you are the primary caregiver – which, for many courts, could be the deciding factor that firms up the finding for Fido.

Take Control of Fido’s Fate 

The alternatives a court might come up with if an agreement can’t be reached by you and your soon-to-be ex may not always be good ones. Selling a beloved family pet isn’t something most people we’ve worked with at Hightower Reff Law want to do. A good way to avoid the possibility is to take control yourself through mediation.

In mediation, both parties sit down with a neutral third party who is a trained mediator and work out a solution to the pet custody problem – much like they would work out a solution to child custody issues.

When an issue has such emotional significance, it’s far too important to leave the decision in the hands of someone else. In our many years of practice, the attorneys at Hightower Reff Law have found that our clients are almost always more satisfied with – and more likely to follow – an agreement they reached themselves in mediation rather than an order handed down by a court.

What to Look for in a Lawyer

If your divorce involves a family pet that’s important to you, bring up the issue in your initial consultation with an attorney. Make sure he or she is familiar with pet custody or possession issues, understands that your pet is important and will take seriously your concerns and goals regarding your pet.

This article should not be construed as legal advice. Situations are different and it’s impossible to provide legal advice for every situation without knowing the individual facts. 

Tracy and Maya
Tracy and Maya

About the Author

Pictured are author Tracy Hightower-Henne, and her 7-year-old Great Dane, Maya.

Tracy says that, true to form, Maya does not realize her size, and fancies her self a true lap dog. Maya’s favorite things are: lap-based snuggles, long walks, playing tug with any kind of toy, getting lots of pets, and lap-based snuggles (she likes lap-based snuggles so much, they must be mentioned twice).

Tracy has had furry family members since her childhood. Right now, the furry family members outnumber the non-furry ones in her house. “We got Maya right before my husband and I got married. We also have 2 cats. Our pets are truly part of our family and we treat them like part of the family. They are definitely spoiled at our house. When a client tells me that keeping their pet in their divorce case is important to them, I get it. I know what it’s like to love your pets and to treat them like family.”

For more details about the author, Hightower Reff attorney Tracy Hightower, visit her profile page at our main website.

To learn about Hightower Reff’s family law practice, visit our main website.

Need to Change a Nebraska Custody or Child Support Order? 4 Things You Need to Know

4thingsaboutmodificationhrlawAt Hightower Reff Law in Omaha, Nebraska, we often meet with clients who come in confused about what to do when their parenting plan isn’t working for them anymore and they need to change a Nebraska child custody order or change a Nebraska child support order.

Sometimes when a child support or child custody decree that was entered in the past doesn’t work anymore, there is something you can do about it. In some cases, you can change or modify custody. It’s called — simply enough — a modification case.

1.  No Magic…but Some Musts 

There’s really no magic number of months or years to wait to try a change a Nebraska child custody order. However, to convince a court to modify a domestic relations order, your case has to meet some basic criteria:

  • The child domestic relations order has to be a final order (temporary orders can’t be modified)
  • There  material change in circumstances that:
  • happened after the entry of the original decree or any previous modification, and
  • was not contemplated when the decree or last order of modification was entered
  • If it’s an order of child support, Nebraska law considers a material change in financial circumstances to be:
    • One that results in a change of 10 percent or more, but not less than $25, upward or downward, of the current child support obligation, child care obligation, or health care obligation


2. The Why’s Matter 

If the parent’s income is lower when the original order was entered, the court will look at the reason for the reduction and whether it was in bad faith if the parent did it on purpose in a Nebraska child custody modification case. The biggest consideration, however, is best interests of the child.

In addition to financial issues, the court will also consider other circumstances of the parties or the child – like  health –  when it’s as a material change in circumstances for modifying Nebraska child support.

3. Other Orders/Issues that may be Able to be Modified:

  • parenting time
  • spousal support
  • removal of the child from the jurisdiction if a parent wants to relocate with the child

4. Orders From Elsewhere 

If  a court in another state entered the Nebraska child support order in question, you may be able to modify it in Nebraska.

That’s a question of jurisdiction that will need to be addressed after an in-depth consultation with an experienced attorney, like those at Hightower Reff Law, because whether you are likely to be successful in your attempt to change your Nebraska child support or child custody order can change in your based upon small changes in fact.

This article should not be construed as legal advice. Situations are different and it’s impossible to provide legal advice for every situation without knowing the individual facts. 

For details about the author, Hightower Reff  Attorney Scott Hahn, visit his profile page at our main website.

To learn about Hightower Reff’s Family Law Practice, visit our main website.

Three Things You Should Know if You’re Charged with a Misdemeanor in Nebraska

Our criminal defense team at Hightower Reff Law helps good people in bad situations. We’ve done it for many years. We get it. When youthree things you should know misdemeanors‘re charged with a misdemeanor in Nebraska, the scariest part can be not knowing what to expect. That’s why we try to make things as clear as we can for our clients. One of the things that helps is filling them in on some of the legal basics.

No article can replace the advice of a good criminal defense attorney, and it isn’t intended to do so. However, this article may give you some information to consider while you search for the right lawyer for your case.

1. Charged with a Misdemeanor Doesn’t Always Mean Jail

The first thing you should know – if you’re going to be charged with a misdemeanor in Nebraska, you aren’t always arrested and taken to jail. Law enforcement may issue a ticket and release you on your own recognizance instead. Regardless, always remain silent until you talk to a lawyer. It’s smart to hire an attorney or ask for court appointed counsel as soon you can.

If you’re taken to jail to be processed after you’re arrested, you may be able to bond out right away without seeing a judge.

Next, there will be an arraignment hearing at which the court will read the charges against you, and advise you of your rights.

2. You Could have a Chance to Keep the Charges Off Your Record…Maybe 

The second thing you should know if you’re charged with a misdemeanor – if it’s your first offense, you may qualify for pre-trial diversion. This may happen for cases like minor in possession, possession of marijuana under an ounce, shoplifting and, in Sarpy County, DUI.

Diversion program requirements and lengths vary by county, but if you qualify and complete the program successfully, the criminal charges will be dismissed and no conviction will show on your record.

3. You Might Have to Be Patient – This May Take Awhile

The third thing you should know if you’re charged with a misdemeanor – if diversion isn’t an option and the case moves forward, your attorney will start preparing your case for trial. He or she will talk to law enforcement and prosecutors will evaluate the evidence against you, but it may take a while to get to trial.. if you get there.

Your attorney may also try to negotiate a plea deal for you, depending on the strength of the evidence against you and the other circumstances of the case.

If you aren’t able to reach a plea agreement, or your lawyer advises you not to take a plea deal, there may be pre-trial hearings or motions hearings before your case gets to trial.

If you’re found not guilty after a trial, the case will be dismissed and it’s over.

On the other hand, if the prosecution is able to prove the charges “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and you’re found guilty, you will be convicted of the misdemeanor offense. Your sentencing will happen at a later hearing, after a completion of a pre-sentence investigation.

The entire process from citation or arrest to sentencing can take up to six months, so you might need to be patient and let your attorney do his or her job. If you rush into a decision that isn’t in your best interest just to get the case over with, you may have to deal with the consequences for a long time.

This article should not be construed as legal advice. Situations are different and it’s impossible to provide legal advice for every situation without knowing the individual facts. 

For details about the author, Hightower Reff Partner Attorney Susan Reff, visit her profile page at our main website.
To learn about Hightower Reff’s misdemeanor and felony criminal law practice, visit our main website.

Sole Custody in Nebraska – A Snowball’s Chance

childcustodyThe lawyers at Hightower Reff Law in Omaha, Nebraska, know that going through a child custody case can be tough. Sometimes clients think that “going for sole custody” is the thing to do. It may be because they’re afraid of the prospect of losing the opportunity to spend the time they want with their children and watching them grow up in a meaningful way.


The prospect of losing time – or a full relationship – with either parent can be scary for a child as well. That’s one reason Nebraska courts have switched their views on child custody in recent years.

Not long ago, Nebraska courts almost always gave the mother what most people refer to as “full custody,”  unless she was shown to be unfit. In recent years, “full” or sole custody has become the exception rather than the rule.

Joint and Sole Custody Explained 

There seem to be some misconceptions about what joint and sole custody mean. One of the most common we hear at Hightower Reff is that sole custody means the parent without custody has no rights or will never see the child again. Neither of those things is true. Here’s what is true of joint and sole custody:

  • Joint custody
    • Both parents share in all decision making for the child and must agree for a decision to be made.
    • Split time with the child (or close to it). The cut off is whether each parent’s parenting time exceeds 142 days a year. Generally, to be considered a “day” the parenting time includes an overnight stay.
  • Sole custody
    • Only one parent has decision making rights for the child, except in cases of medical emergency when the child is with the non-custodial parent. Then, the non-custodial parent can make medical decisions for the child.
    • One parent has the majority of the time with the child. The non-custodial parent typically has parenting time every other weekend, alternating holidays, and one weeknight (that does not include an overnight).
    • Both parents still have access to medical and educational records.

A Snowball’s Chance

Just a few years ago, it was relatively rare to see a Nebraska court order joint custody unless the parties agreed and could show the court it was in the child’s best interests. Now, the opposite is true. The chance of getting sole custody may be akin to, well, a snowball’s chance in you-know-where unless there are special circumstances – such as one parent traveling a lot for work, or some other reason one of the parents is unavailable to participate jointly in the raising of the child.

Courts are listening to the experts. Many child welfare and mental health experts say that joint custody is best for children of divorced parents. In most cases, it appears Nebraska courts are giving that opinion of the professional community weight in their decision making.

Meanwhile, opponents of the joint custody trend argue it could be damaging to some children. They say there is evidence that joint custody creates attachment disorders in infants.  There’s also discussion by joint custody opponents that, for older kids, switching back and forth between parental homes creates upheaval, stress and inconsistency that could lead to problems.

Room for Argument 

While there is a trend toward joint custody, like any area of the law, it isn’t to be treated as a one size fits all thing. Nebraska statutes recognize that the courts must evaluate each situation based on the facts and circumstances of each individual family and make decisions based upon the best interests of the individual child affected by the court’s decision.

Don’t go it Alone 

In our many years as family law attorneys, we’ve found at Hightower Reff Law, that it’s best in the long run if parents can reach an agreement regarding their custody arrangements and parenting plan with help from their attorneys or a qualified family law mediator, but sometimes that isn’t possible. If you can’t reach an agreement, it’s important to have an attorney experienced in child custody cases on your side so you have the best chance of proving to the court that your custody proposal – whether joint or sole – is the one that is best for your child.

The earlier in your case you get a good lawyer on board who can help you understand and navigate the Nebraska child custody process, the more peace of mind you will have and the more likely you may be to reach the outcome that is best for you and your children.

This article should not be construed as legal advice. Situations are different and it’s impossible to provide legal advice for every situation without knowing the individual facts. 

For details about the author, Hightower Reff Partner Attorney Tracy Hightower-Henne, visit her profile page at our main website.
To learn about Hightower Reff’s Child Custody practice, visit our main website.