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Divorce and Pet Custody in New Jersey

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Division of assets, spousal support, and post-divorce parenting plans are components of many divorce processes. But where do Fido, Goldie, and Whiskers fit into all of this? 

For many families, especially where pets are viewed more like family members, it may be surprising (and a little disappointing) to learn that In New Jersey, pets are categorized as personal property for divorce purposes. With a growing number of pet custody cases in New Jersey, our family law attorneys can help you navigate the nuances that come with divorce and pet ownership. 

How are pets handled during a divorce? 

Because New Jersey law establishes that pets are personal property, this means that orders don’t address custody of or get “child support” for a pet the same way you would for a child. That said, it may be possible to draft agreements for pets that are similar to child custody and support orders. 

For example, some partners may opt to address the matter directly before marriage by creating a “pre-pup,” or a prenuptial agreement that specifies who will get and care for the family pet(s) in the event of separation or divorce. Many partners also incorporate this into a larger prenuptial agreement that talks about how their assets and liabilities will be addressed in the same event.

In other cases, these issues can be resolved during the divorce process. Methods of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) like mediation can be a way to come to an agreement about custody and care for pets. As with other aspects of divorce, mediation gives you and your former partner the opportunity to create a highly personalized solution for future pet arrangements, including time sharing and financial support. 

If it isn’t possible to reach an agreement out of court, judges may also hear testimony about how the “asset” was treated during the marriage, including facts and proofs about who has been handling the majority of the pet’s care and the payment for and treatment of pet expenses. They may also consider your children’s relationships with the family pets, and how their well-being could be affected by certain pet custody arrangements. 

How pet “custody” is determined 

There’s no black-and-white answer as to how New Jersey courts will determine the outcome of a dispute over the family pet. Every situation is different, so it’s important to work with an experienced family law attorney who understands how to navigate New Jersey law as it pertains to your unique situation—pets included. 

Pets obtained before the marriage

Because pets are considered personal property, they are subject to the rules of equitable distribution. Under New Jersey law, the general rule of equitable distribution is that property obtained during the marriage is subject to distribution, while property obtained prior to the marriage is not. 

If one spouse owned a pet before marriage, they are generally entitled to keep the pet after divorce, although this is dependent on the facts of the situation and how the pet was cared for and supported during the marriage. If you have questions or concerns about pet custody of a family pet obtained before marriage, contact an experienced family law attorney to discuss your options. 

Pets obtained during the marriage

If you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse welcomed a pet into your home together, the situation may be more complex, particularly if there are multiple pets involved. 

To some pet parents’ dismay, the courts are generally reluctant to get involved in cases concerning pets with the same intensity as involvement in cases regarding custody of children. However, if there is any dispute over who gets to keep the pet (or whether multiple pets will be separated), the court will consider who paid for, cared for, and otherwise nurtured the pet to determine who is in the best position to handle the necessary caregiving responsibilities. 

The court will also assess financial responsibility for the pet when considering past expense credits and/or financial responsibility for the pet moving forward. 

Creating a pet “parenting plan”

In some jurisdictions, courts may recognize pet custody agreements, pet prenups, and pet “parenting plans” as long as both parties can agree on the terms. If these arrangements are made within your final divorce settlement, they carry the weight of a court’s order.

Pet parenting plans may include:

  • Identifying the primary owner/caregiver
  • Determining living arrangements and/or scheduling visitation times
  • Creating a pet expenses savings account
  • Agreeing to follow the same routines, such as feeding schedules and walk times
  • Who will handle vet care and pet-related emergencies
  • How both parties will approach important pet-related decisions

In some instances, it may be in your family’s best interest to mirror your pet custody agreement to your child custody agreement, allowing your children to stay with the pet at all times. In other instances, you and your ex-partner may agree to keep the pet’s environment as consistent as possible. 

As long as you and your soon-to-be-ex can come to mutually agreeable terms, you can include a wide range of provisions and stipulations in your pet custody agreement to ensure your pet is well cared for. 

Consult with a New Jersey divorce attorney 

Creating a suitable arrangement for your pets following a divorce can be a complex decision. At Jacobs Berger, we work closely with our clients to find solutions that meet the needs of all family members—pets included. 

Make an appointment to coordinate your strategy session with our team today. 

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.