Who Gets the Dog?

Divorce Law
pet directive

divorce lawyers nj free consultationCustody determination is always a major part of any divorce involving children, but many couples who share pets may end up asking: Who gets the dog?

The court, of course, does not treat pet ownership in the same way that it treats child custody. In a case involving child custody, the court must base its decisions on what is in the best interest of the child. Other than in cases involving the abuse or neglect of animals, this is not so with decisions involving pet ‘custody’.

Though we may love and think of them as family members, as far as the court is concerned pets are just property. As such, they are subject to the same laws as any shared goods or possessions which must be divided between two parties. There can be no legal ‘custody’ of pets, only possession.

There have been some recent precedents in the area of pet custody however, mostly involving dogs, which affect how pet ownership may be determined.

For instance, in the case of Houseman v. Dare, 966 A.2d 24, (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2009) the court initially decided that a dispute over ownership of a couple’s dog could be remedied with a monetary award, in lieu of actual ownership. On appeal, however, it was established that the ownership of pets may hinge on different criteria than applies to most ordinary household goods.

The case involved a woman who claimed she had been verbally told by her ex that she could keep the dog. Then, after she left the dog with her ex while on vacation, her ex refused to return the dog. The judge who originally heard the case ordered the man to pay his ex-wife the dollar value of the animal, rather than requiring him to return the dog. To get her dog back, she appealed the case all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled that there were matters other than just monetary value to be considered.

In its decision on the case, the NJ Supreme Court stated that owner’s ‘competing claims for possession of a pet based on one party’s sincere affection for and attachment’ to the animal should be treated no differently than ‘claims based on one party’s sincere sentiment for an inanimate object based upon a relationship with the donor.’ Since the courts have previously awarded specific goods such as ‘heirlooms, family treasures and works of art’ to parties based on the ‘strong sentimental attachment’ they induce, there is no reason not to consider pets in the same way.

The case was sent back to a lower court for reconsideration, and joint possession (which the judge was emphatic in stating was NOT the same as custody) was eventually granted to both parties.

At the Law Offices of Lynda L. Hinkle, we understand that your pet is more to you than property, and we understand nuances of the law that may impact your ‘custody’ case.

For more information about the law as it pertains to your pet, check out our posts about pet estate planning and trusts for pets. For a free consultation about your specific legal matter, call us at (856) 227-7888, or contact us at [email protected]. We have locations in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester counties, and are happy to discuss your options.







The above is not specific legal advice nor does it create a lawyer-client relationship. Do not rely upon it without consulting an attorney to see how the information presented fits your unique circumstances.


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