Pets and Divorce
Pets are considered property, ‘priceless sentimental property,’ according to New Jersey case law
The division of assets in a divorce is an inevitable – and difficult – part of any separation. There is the house, of course, and financial assets such as savings accounts and investments the couple has made. But what do you do when it comes to the beloved family pets? They hardly feel like ‘assets,’ yet they’re considered property, if ‘priceless sentimental property,’ according to New Jersey case law. As such, pets must be divided between the couple in the same way all other property is divided.
Though pets are legally considered property, the way in which judges handle their division between spouses tends to reflect an awareness of emotional attachment people have developed with their (generally) furry companions. ‘Pet custody’ is the unofficial term for this kind of consideration made by the courts. It represents an evolution of the past, in which the general practice was that one spouse would get the pet and another would simply receive monetary compensation. While this practice is still observed as the status quo as part of the divorce proceedings, recent New Jersey rulings such as that of Houseman v. Dare in appeals court reflected an expansion of the view of pets by the courts to meet owners’ own emotional attachment.
Houseman v. Dare was a 2009 ruling that elevated the value of pets from simply a property to something that has “special subjective value” for owners, rendering simple monetary compensation potentially insufficient. The appeals court ruling in Houseman v. Dare was that each spouse would receive alternating five-week visits with their beloved pet — essentially granting shared custody to the divorcing couple, though the legal term is given was “alternating possession” of the property.
My pets are like my children. How do I navigate divorce and separation of “property”, of which my beloved pets are part?
Given that the simple granting of pet ownership to one party in exchange for monetary compensation is meeting newer-age models of shared ‘pet custody,’ there are options for mediation with your ex in order to come to an agreement that works for you both. There is also the option of attempting to secure ‘sole custody’ of your pet. In order to do so, you will need to make a case that the pet is in better hands with you. With the support of your attorney, document the time you spend together and the ways in which you physically, financially, and emotionally care for your pet. Detail the ways you spend time together and examples of the bond you have created with your beloved friend. Even having something like video evidence can help in court to prove the strength of the bond that the animal itself evidently shares. If you are the main caregiver and the partner who takes your pet to their appointments, seek letters from the veterinarian, etc, confirming that you are the owner who sees to your pets’ healthcare.
What factors may help determine who gets ‘pet custody’?
Keep the following factors in mind when gathering documentation of your relationship with your pet:
- Did the pet belong to one partner before the relationship, or did you get the pet together?
- Who spends the most time with the pet?
- Who is the main financial support for the pet?
- Who is the primary caregiver (think food, walks, play, veterinary visits)?
- Which home is more suitable for a pet? Is the post-separation living situation adequate for your pet?
- Are children involved? Where will they be living? You will want to keep the emotional needs of your children front and center throughout the divorce proceedings, which includes consideration of where the pets go.
The presence of a pet in a couple’s life is most often a blessing, but when two people decide to go their separate ways, things can get ugly if each wants to start a new life including the family pet. Consider putting pet considerations into a prenuptial agreement to prevent a legal battle in the future. While certain precedents have been set such as the one in the appellate court ruling of Houseman vs. Dare, the call ultimately goes to the judge. If you don’t want to place your future with your pet into their hands, plan ahead.
Contact an Experienced Alimony Attorney
Our direct approach handles communication with all involved parties and represents the best interests of the family, including pets, and amicable separation, so our clients can focus on aligning themselves with their future.