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Are Pets Considered Marital Property or Members of the Family?

By Jamie Berger, Esq.

Deciding Pet Custody During Morris County Divorce

Judges can award Pet Custody in divorce cases in New Jersey
Judges can award Pet Custody in divorce cases

If you and your family have ever owned a dog or cat, you may be shocked to hear that principles of property division generally apply when family court judges decide who should keep the family pet. Most of us would agree that these highly valued and prized family members are the furthest thing from “property” to the family. In many cases, our loyal and loving animals are the most adored members of the family and often times are the center of the household attention. So, what happens to these pets when a couple decides to divorce? In New Jersey law pets are considered to be solely property and they were assigned to one of the divorcing spouses, much the same way the furniture, vehicles and televisions are assigned.

Although many of us feel that our pets are part of the family, New Jersey is not alone in viewing pets as personal property as other states share this view as well. However, these laws are being re-examined in many states due to countless complaints from the ASPCA and Humane Society, and an increase in pet related issues in the courts where litigants claim that animals are not property and should not be treated as such.

California Law Changes When Determining Pet Custody 2019

Under a new California law which takes effect January 1st, 2019, judges have been granted the authority to settle disagreements over “custody” of the family pet the same way they handle child-custody disputes.

The bill signed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown does not change the fact that pets are still considered community property, however factors such as who feeds them, who takes them to the vet and on walks, and who protects them can be considered when a judge uses his/her discretion to determine the outcome of pet custody.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a Hayward Democrat who introduced the law, said it’s time family pets got the status they deserve — family members.  Quirk himself has a Maltese-ShihTzu mix named Luna and calls himself “the proud parent of a rescued dog.”  He found an ally in California’s pet-loving governor, who has a photo of “first dog” Lucy Brown on his website.

New Jersey Pet Custody Laws Are Ahead of the Curve

New Jersey addressed this same issue in 2009, in a case where a couple agreed to share custody of their pet, but at some point the man refused to continue with the agreed-upon arrangement, so the woman sued. In court, the judge granted full custody to the man and awarded the woman monetary damages, however she was not interested in money; so she filed an appeal.

The New Jersey Appellate court agreed that the value of a pet is subjective and cannot be assigned a price.  The strong attachment pet owners have with their pets warranted a different set of rules where pets should be valued more like heirlooms than as distributed property. In fact, many can and will argue in New Jersey courts that their pet is a form of unique property which cannot be compensated for. In circumstances such as these, the judge can order a shared possession agreement, commonly termed “pet custody.”

Factors Judges can Consider in Morristown Pet Custody Motions

As a result of this precedent, your New Jersey divorce courts can now consider motions during divorce which claim that pets are unique property for which a value cannot be absolutely assigned. This has opened the door for divorce court judges to order shared pet custody. The scope of factors which judges can consider before finalizing a pet custody arrangement in divorce cases is extensive.

Here are some of the points that can be considered:

  • If the pet was previously owned by one of the spouses before the relationship began.
  • Which spouse is responsible for the daily care of the pet; i.e. feeding, walking, trips to the vet, protection, etc.
  • Which spouse pays for the food and medical expenses for the pet.
  • Which spouse will have the better ability to continue the pet’s care and upkeep once the divorce is final.
  • Which spouse will have custody of the children, if there are any.

NJ Pet Custody Influenced by Child Custody

While judges can consider any combination of these factors, it’s likely that a very strong one in determining the custody of your pet is the presence of children in your marriage. Children often have special fondness and emotional attachments to their pet(s). It’s probable that a judge is likely to take into consideration which of you has primary custody of your child or children. It’s unusual that a court or judge will separate children from their pet(s).

Awarding the pet to the children’s custodial parent can be argued as maintaining “the child’s best interests” in the divorce.  In these situations, a visitation schedule can be set up so that when the other spouse sees the children, he or she can see the pet, too.

Contact Our Morris County Divorce and Pet Custody Attorneys Today

An attorney at Jacobs Berger can guide you through the divorce process. We understand your pet is not property and custody of your beloved dog or cat, in many cases, may be much more important to you than some other areas involving asset division in your case.

Our family law attorneys are serving families like yours in communities across and around Morris County including Morristown, Morris Plains, Randolph, Denville, Parsippany, Dover, Hanover, Florham Park, Tewksbury and Mendham. If you have questions about pet custody or any other issues in divorce or separation, contact our firm online or call 973-710-4366 to meet with one of our experienced divorce attorneys. Our business is helping you.

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.