Millions of Americans keep family pets, and dogs are the most popular selection. Dogs quickly become an integral part of a family unit. A divorce means breaking down and dividing the family unit, and when a dog is part of the family, the parties will need to consider what is to become of the dog.
Although “pet custody” is a term that is colloquially used, it is important to understand that this is not a legal term. In cases where the divorcing parties share children, the court will make a decision for their custody and parenting time based on what is in the children’s best interest. The factors for this determination are set out in New Jersey statutes. There is no similar set of factors for determining what is “best” for a family dog. In short, even though a dog may feel like a member of the family, there is not a New Jersey law that recognizes them as such.
Dogs are actually viewed as personal property under New Jersey law. In New Jersey, marital assets are subject to an “equitable division.” Unlike a checking account, dishes, or furniture, however, a dog clearly cannot just be physically divided. Instead, a court is likely to look at particular facts to determine what is the more fair determination on who should receive the family dog in the divorce. If one party owned the dog before the marriage began, it is more likely the dog will be awarded to that individual. If the dog was acquired after the marriage began, the court is likely to look to who has traditionally been the dog’s primary caretaker. In other words, who has been the one to feed the dog, walk the dog, and take the dog for veterinary care. If the parties have minor children that are bonded to the dog, the court may also consider where the children will be spending the majority of their time, and award the dog to that parent. Note that although a court will not create a “visitation schedule” for a dog, there is nothing stopping parties from coming to an agreement about pet visitation. Parties are free to craft a settlement that provides for visitation of the dog if they so choose.
If you are facing divorce, contact us today. We have extensive experience helping our clients with all types of divorce issues, including those involving family pets.
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