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Who Gets the Dog (or Family Pet) if We Split?

Here’s what you should know about custody of a family pet in a divorce.

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When you get a divorce, no matter how amicably you plan to end the relationship, it can still get contentious. What’s worse, the reality is that you’ll have to part with some of your most cherished possessions in the division of property. While everyone has heard of custody agreements and knows about shared custody for kids, most folks don’t understand that custody can also apply to a family pet. 

So, who gets the dog or the cat when a couple decides they can’t be together anymore? Here’s what you should know about custody of a family pet in a divorce.

Are Pets Property or Family? 

Ask anyone who’s ever lost a pet and they’ll tell you that the experience is devastating. In fact, a full 95% of those polled say their pets are part of their family. Unfortunately, most courts don’t see it this way. 

Almost every state in the U.S., including New Jersey, considers pets to be property that has to be divided along with the furniture, the bank accounts, and all the other items of value. While this may seem cold and detached, it’s the way the law handles the issue and, therefore, it’s the reality that you’ll have to deal with in your own divorce.

What’s the “Special Subjective Value” of Pets? 

While the New Jersey courts ruled in Houseman v. Dare that the state does not recognize pet custody, it does consider that pets have “special subjective value.” As such, the subjective value must be taken into consideration when deciding who gets the pet. 

This means that in a contested divorce, either (or both) of the spouses can argue that the pet in question has “unique sentimental value.” This distinction means that you can’t put a monetary value on the pet. Generally speaking, the party who can prove their case will be awarded the pet. In some cases, the judge can order that the divorcing couple share the pet on a schedule, much like a custody agreement.

What other special considerations are taken into account? 

There are several special considerations the court may use in determining who to give the pet to in a divorce. These include:

1. What’s best for the kids: This is probably the biggest consideration that a judge will take when deciding who gets the family pet in question. Divorce, even an amicable one, can still be traumatic for children. They may have feelings of depression and abandonment even in the smoothest of custody issues. So, a pet will usually be given to the spouse who’s also awarded primary custody of the children. The pet is thought of as a great companion for children to help ease their anxiety during this troubling time. 

If a couple ends up sharing custody of the children equally, the judge may order a similar sharing calendar for the pet to keep it with the kids. If a couple has no child, then the pet’s custody will be determined by the next set of criteria.

2. What’s best for the pet: While the courts consider pets as property, they do realize there are important aspects to keep in mind to maintain the pet’s health and well-being. One of the first (and biggest) points in any one party’s favor is prior ownership. If the pet belonged to one party before they began a relationship or got married, then the judge will usually order that person to maintain ownership.

Another issue the judge will consider is who the pet spends the most time with. If one party is the primary caretaker, they may be granted ownership. Primary caretaker means that the person is the one who fed and cared for the pet including bathing, walking, and going to the veterinarian. 

The judge might also consider who spends more “bonding” time with the pet playing and going for walks. Finally, a judge might consider the homes of the two parties after the divorce. If one party downsizes into a smaller home such as a condominium or apartment, then they may not be best suited to care for a large animal such as a Great Dane or Old English Sheepdog.

Even though a pet is considered by the courts to be a piece of property, they do acknowledge that it’s a living creature, and its well-being is important. Every case is unique. If you have questions about what might happen to your pets in a divorce, schedule a consultation with one of our experienced family law attorneys.

Contact the Compassionate Family Law Attorneys at Smedley Law Group in Woodbury, NJ Today for More Information About What Might Happen to Your Family Pet in a Divorce

If you’re thinking about filing for divorce, you’ll also most likely be dealing with another matter like child custody, child support, or division of assets, so you’ll need to speak with a qualified attorney. The New Jersey family law attorneys at Smedley Law Group represent clients throughout the state, including West Deptford, Woodbury Heights, Runnemede, and Cherry Hill. We understand how challenging this time can be for you, which is why we will fight hard to protect your interests, and the interests of your loved ones, throughout the legal process. Call us at (856) 251-0800 or fill out our confidential contact form to schedule a consultation. We have an office conveniently located at 750 Cooper Street, Woodbury, NJ 08096.

The articles on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.

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