For many couples, the decision to separate can leave the family dog, cat, or other pet without a permanent home. Often, the issues of pet custody can become contentious. Learn about how courts determine pet custody in the state of New Jersey.
Who gets the dog after a divorce? For many pet owners, there is some bad news. While you may love your dog or cat like a child, the courts in New Jersey do not treat pets like children. A pet owner cannot ask a judge to award custody of the pet to one person over another. The courts are not required to make decisions about joint custody of the pet either. From the standpoint of the law, the family pet is considered property, like a piece of jewelry or a vehicle.
For that reason, many pet owners draft their own custodial agreement, similar to those for their children. Most states will assign a monetary value to the pet based on property valuation. The party who wants to keep the pet will have to indicate the monthly expenses and upkeep in a financial statement submitted to the courts. In most cases, the courts consider which party brought the pet into the marriage and who cares for the animal on a daily basis.
With pets treated like any other piece of property, more couples are motivated to seek a “pre-pup” agreement. These agreements work similarly to a prenuptial agreement, but in this case, the document outlines who will retain custody if the couple breaks up. Couples interested in this agreement might want to talk to a family law attorney to gain better insight into the process.
In many cases, the spouses should work together with their respective divorce lawyers when it comes time to negotiate a pet custody agreement. It is better to resolve disagreements about the visitation and custody of the pets on your own rather than relying on the courts to settle the matter.
Pets are in effect assigned a monetary value similar to tangible personal or real property. For many pet owners, that decision is inaccurate because dogs and cats have sentimental value. Plus, pets are living animals with feelings and attachments. Since the owner cannot replace a pet, it often feels unfair for the courts to describe these animals as “personal property.” Yet, that classification happens every day in the New Jersey court system. A judge will look at the facts of the case, meaning the devoted pet parent could lose custody of their dog or cat. Talking with a family lawyer may help you determine how to keep your pets during the divorce proceedings.
You should try to resolve issues involving shared custody of the family dog or cat through a legal agreement. Many of these concerns and problems are similar to determining child custody. Couples can address most of the issues in a written agreement drafted by a New Jersey family law attorney.
A divorce attorney can negotiate shared custody of the family pet by drawing up an agreement that addresses:
While you may want to have these issues decided by the courts, bringing in a mediator could be the best decision, especially for contentious divorces. You can come to an acceptable agreement with the help of your divorce lawyer that will benefit your pet.
Often, the mediator will consider a few factors. The spouse who brings the pet into the marriage will usually keep the dog or cat after the divorce. However, if the pet bonded with the other spouse, then things can become messy. When a couple splits up, finances do have to be considered. The initial pet owner might not have the room in a new residence or their finances to take care of the pet. In those situations, the meditator might find that the other spouse is the best option.
For couples with children, their kids may have bonded with the pet. Children often have a hard time processing their parents’ separation, and they may need the pet’s friendship to help them cope with the process. When it comes time to negotiate a pet custody agreement, you must consider which situation would benefit the pet. All of the animal’s emotional and physical needs must be met, even if that means awarding custody to the other spouse.
Even with an agreement, disputes can still occur. In some cases, the deal sends the pet to one spouse, but the other person may complain about the quality of care for the pet. Also, there could be problems with transferring or picking up the animal for their visitations. Unfortunately, a pet custody dispute can be just as unsettling as those involving children. Talking to a family lawyer might help you avoid some of these issues.
There has been some precedent in the New Jersey court system regarding pet custody. In Houseman v. Dare, the couple purchased the dog together and listed both names on the registration papers. When it came time to end the relationship, Dare made a verbal agreement that Houseman could keep the dog. However, he failed to live up to that promise, requiring the courts to intervene. As a result, the court found that dog had a special subjective value similar to “heirlooms, family treasures, and works of art.”
According to the Houseman v. Dare opinion, pet custody agreements are considered under contract law. Lawyers and pet owners should note this factor when they want to negotiate a pet custody agreement. These agreements are invaluable because they can help resolve any issues involving the pet before they reach a judge. These agreements may also help each pet parent define their roles and responsibilities in their pets’ lives.
If there is no resolution after working with a divorce lawyer and mediator, then the courts may have to get involved in the case. For the most part, pet custody court cases are unorthodox and relatively new. Some judges may grant visitation rights to the other party, especially if they want to continue to be in the pet’s life. However, that is not always the case, and the court system often does not recognize pets as anything more than personal property. Few legal cases in the United States have heard issues regarding pet custody.
You may want to consult with a divorce attorney about your next steps. At Lawrence Law, we understand the nuances of this aspect of family law. Our team knows that you want the best for your pet’s welfare. With that in mind, our attorneys may be able to help you resolve your conflicts regarding pet custody in your divorce case. If you would like to set up a consultation, make sure to call our Watchung or Red Bank offices at 908-645-1000 or fill out our online form.
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