PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- People think of -- and treat -- their pets more like family these days, so it should come as no surprise that when couples break up, it's not only children who can get caught in custody disputes.

"The more he is with me, I couldn't imagine life without him," Daniel Meixell said of his dog, Buddy. "I guess a pet nuptial is what we might call it, is the smart way to go." The alternative is judges determine who gets the dog the same way they do other property like the couch or the TV.

[WATCH: How a 'pet-nup' works]

"Judges decide who owns it and award it to that party not looking at it from the pet's point of view and what is best for the pet," said family law attorney Jonathan Brooks of Udall Shumway PLC. He says a "pet-nup" is sort of like a prenup and not a bad idea. "When I meet with someone, and we are talking about a premarital agreement, the same way we talk about other property interests, and the way you talk about children, the question comes up about whether they have pets, how many and what type of pets." Given that, it's typical that you'll see a special section in a divorce decree where, in this case, custody of the dog is detailed.

"During a divorce, you always try to minimize the number of changes in the kids' lives," Nicole Rose said. That's what she said there was never any question who would get the family's Great Dane, Daisy. "We just knew she had to go with the kids along with the same parenting schedule," Rose explained. "We both loved Daisy, so it gave us an opportunity to still have her in our lives, and we couldn't imagine it any other way."

[MORE: Pet and animal news]

A 2014 survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported a 27% increase in pet-custody cases over the five previous years. Most of them -- 88% -- involved a dog. Cats were a distant second at 5%, and horses made up 1%. The remaining cases involved birds and reptiles.

Experts attribute the recent spike in pet-custody disputes to the decline in birth rates and homeownership. "If you don't have a house and you don't have children, they put all their energy, love and affection into the pets, and so if they end the relationship, the question becomes what happens to the pet," Brooks said.

Courts have traditionally treated pets as personal property in divorces, but that's starting to change. Alaska, Illinois, and California have enacted pet-custody legislation allowing the court to consider the animal's well-being. The judge can look at several factors, including who feeds the pet, who walks it, and who takes it to the vet. "I'm hopeful every state will soon have some variety of that process," Brooks said.

In lieu of that, the pet-nup helps clear up any questions. "It does alleviate another bone of contention, no pun intended, of what could possibly happen in the future," Rose said.

 


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