In New Jersey, there is limited case law addressing who keeps the family pets after a divorce. Just because there is limited case law, does not mean there are not disputes and issues when it comes to Poochie. As of now, New Jersey courts view and treat pets as personal property and not a custodial issue, as children are viewed. Our courts have held that a pet has “special subjective value” for which monetary compensation might not be adequate and, as a result, ordered a five week on and off visitation schedule. Laws in other states laws are evolving where there is more of an emotional value placed upon pets. There is one case in New York where the court did not view the pet as merely personal property but looked at what was in the best interest of the pet. New Jersey is not there yet.
Most pet owners view pets as true members of the family. Therefore, what happens to the pet during a divorce can be an emotional and thorny (like a porcupine) topic. All issues regarding pets should be discussed, negotiated and written into the marital settlement agreement. Like other divorce issues, when it comes to pets, custody, visitation and payment agreements need to be reached.
Custody & Visitation
Regarding custody and visitation, the primary residence of the pet should be determined. Will the other party have visitation rights with the pet? If yes, a schedule needs to be determined. Like parenting time, rules need to be established for the exchange of the pet. When children are involved, I have seen arrangements where the pet goes with the kids – both for primary residence and for visitation. It clears up confusion and makes the kids happy to have their pet during parenting time.
The other major issue regarding pets is figuring out who is responsible for expenses to care for the pet. Expenses include grooming, boarding, veterinary bills, pet insurance, toys, furniture and food. Where pets are concerned, we are not just talking about dogs and cats. People have exotic and expensive pets such as horses, monkeys, snakes, llamas and birds. Where there are outrageous pet expenses, there can be alimony considerations. Also, if a pet is an income-producing pet, such as a show dog, there can be further alimony considerations.
For couples who co-own a pet before they get married, pet issues should be worked into a pre-nuptial agreement. The same issues of custody, visitation and money are addressed in pre-nuptial agreements.
Lastly, sometimes neither party wants the pet. The pet is sent to a shelter. I always tell clients to act in the best interest of the children. So, if there is a pet involved, my advice try to make a very stressful time for the children less stressful and keep the pet.
This blog is a reminder that pets need to be addressed in New Jersey divorces. Each circumstance is different. If you have any questions regarding your pets, or other family law issues, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.