In a divorce you might expect to assign certain items like dining room sets, pots and pans, and even cars to one spouse or another. What most divorcing couples do not contemplate, however, is having to assign the family pet to one spouse.
Under New Jersey law, pets and other animals are treated as personal property, not unlike a kitchen table. But pets have more intrinsic value than a kitchen table, how can their custody possibly be treated as other household goods? In New Jersey there is not a statute in place or established case law contemplating the custody of pets in a divorce case. Questions have arisen more and more frequently about the question of how to handle pets in a divorce, however, and courts have given some guidance on how to best to handle the ownership of pets in a New Jersey divorce.
FACTORS CONSIDERED FOR PETS IN A NEW JERSEY DIVORCE
The court may take into account any of the following factors in determining who to award ownership of the pet to:
Who Was the First Owner of the Pet?
If the spouses did not acquire the pet together, the court may consider giving the pet to the initial owner.
Who Has Custody of the Children?
If a divorcing couple has children, the court may consider which spouse has custody of the children in determining who should continue ownership of the pet. This is often one of the most important factors considered. The theory is that the best interest of the children is to not separate the children from their pet, especially while going through a difficult time such as a divorce.
Who Spent the Most Time with the Pet?
Did one spouse spend significantly more time with the pet than the other spouse? If so, the court may consider that spouse to be a better guardian for the pet.
Who Took Responsibility for the Pet?
Which spouse took primary responsibility to feed, walk, change litter, take the pet to the veterinarian, and take care of grooming? The court may consider that the spouse who took the most responsibility for the pet to be in a better position to continue caring for the pet after the divorce.
Who Paid for the Pet’s Needs?
If one spouse paid for the pet’s food, medical bills, and other needs, the court may deem that spouse to be more suitable to care for the pet in the future.
While pets are increasingly considered as more than mere personal property by the courts in New Jersey, the courts have clearly articulated that it does not treat them as similar to a child, wherein they apply a “best interest” standard to determine which living situation is best for the child. The court will, however, consider awarding sole possession of the pet to each spouse at different times of the year, a type of “joint custody” arrangement for the pet.
Houseman v. Dare, 405 N.J Super 538. (App. Div. 2009).
Which spouse should retain ownership of a pet is a fact-specific question. If you are going through a divorce and have an issue regarding your pet, please call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen today for a free consultation.