Articles Posted in Property Distribution


If you are considering a prenuptial agreement, carefully review all aspects of the contract before signing. A recent revision to the New Jersey Uniform Premarital and Pre-Civil Union Agreement Act makes it harder than before to break that agreement, even if circumstances change. (1)

A prenuptial agreement, also referred to as a premarital or pre-civil union agreement in New Jersey, is a contract between two people contemplating a lifelong union. The contract outlines, among other things, distribution of assets should the relationship end. (2) One of the biggest problems is that couples enter into these contracts at a time when the dissolution of their relationship is the last thing on their minds. It is important not to let your emotional bliss stand in the way of looking at the contract realistically.

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Deciding the fate of the family pet in a divorce is a little more complicated than deciding who gets Great Aunt Sara’s heirloom trinkets, yet most states consider pets as mere property. New Jersey, however, is one state that recognizes the uniqueness of pets and the sentimental value we attach to them. In fact, New Jersey courts will enforce sharing agreements entered into by divorcing couples.

This opinion dates back to the March 2009 case of Houseman v. Dare. As an engaged couple, Ms. Houseman and Mr. Dare shared ownership of a pug named Dexter. When the engagement ended, they reached an agreement on sharing their dog. This worked well until Ms. Houseman went on vacation, leaving Dexter with Mr. Dare. Upon her return, she learned Mr. Dare reneged on the agreement wanting Dexter to himself. Ms. Houseman filed suit. (1)

The lower court’s initial decision was to not enforce the sharing agreement. A two-year battle ensued and a New Jersey Appeals Court reversed the lower court’s decision to not enforce the sharing agreement, awarding monetary compensation instead. The Appeals Court ruled that a judge can, in fact, enforce sharing agreements or, if necessary, determine who gets the family pet based on sentimental value.

While New Jersey courts stop short of using the term “custody” in reference to the human/pet association, they do recognize companion animals as unique and irreplaceable. (2) Like all living things, pets have characteristics and traits that make them distinct from each other. A new dog doesn’t necessarily “replace” the one lost in a divorce.

Court support of shared care arrangements can become even more important when dealing with animals with longer life expectancies, such as horses or exotic birds. These animals can live a couple of decades or more and a lot can happen in that time – people have a change of heart, they relocate; any number of factors can affect the original agreement, making court support of that agreement all the more important.

What happens if you can’t reach an agreement? New Jersey courts can decide the placement of he family pet after considering a number of factors: Who had the primary responsibility for the daily care of the animal? Who paid the vet bills? And, if children are involved, who had primary custody? Often, children and animals form the strongest bonds and courts will weigh this when deciding the animal’s placement. (3)



Judges may invoke specific performance remedy, appeals panel says
By Mary Pat Gallagher
New Jersey Law Journal
March 10, 2009

When couples break up, judges can decide who gets custody of pets based on their unique sentimental value, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday, setting a precedent in the state.

The published opinion in Houseman v. Dare, A-2415-07, reverses a trial court’s finding that pets differ from personal property like heirlooms, family treasures and works of art and therefore that the equitable remedy of specific performance is not available.

Appellate Division Judges Jane Grall, Stephen Skillman and Ronald Graves found that determination erroneous as a matter of law and remanded for further proceedings.

“There is no reason for a court of equity to be more wary in resolving competing claims for possession of a pet, based on one party’s sincere affection for and attachment to it than in resolving competing claims based on one party’s sincere sentiment for an inanimate object based on a relationship with the donor,” Grall wrote.

The case arose out of the broken engagement of Doreen Houseman and Eric Dane. The couple started dating in 1993, bought a house together in Williamstown in 1999 and became engaged in 2000. In 2003, they paid $1,500 for a pug named Dexter.

Dane broke off the engagement in May 2006 and when Houseman moved out two months later, she took Dexter with her, along with what Grall described as his “paraphernalia.” After that, Dexter lived with Houseman, who allowed Dane to take the dog for visits.

In late February 2007, Houseman went on vacation and left Dexter with Dane, but he refused to surrender the dog when she returned on March 4.

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What if you do not have a will, you only have a few weeks left to live, and you do not want your spouse to inherit your estate?

In New Jersey, a surviving spouse has a right of election to take an elective share of one-third of the augmented estate under certain limitations and conditions spouse.

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Gruber v. Rixford, N.J.Super.A.D., 2007 (unpublished opinion).

A same sex couple purchased a townhouse together, in which title was held solely in defendant’s name as was the mortgage on the property. The plaintiff expended approximately $55,000 toward the purchase of the townhouse.

After the parties broke up, the plaintiff alleged that the townhouse was a joint asset, subject to equitable distribution, giving him a 50% interest. In support of plaintiff’s position, he alleged the parties had a verbal agreement that his name would be placed on the deed.

The defendant offered to pay plaintiff $93,000 as his share of the home and testified that plaintiff accepted this pay-off. Plaintiff acknowledged that the conversation took place but denied that he accepted the offer.

The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

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In a divorce where defendant was the recipient of a disability pension benefit from the New Jersey Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, plaintiff was not allowed to receive that part of the pension representing reimbursement for disability and economic loss. Larrison v. Larrison, N.J.Super.A.D.,2007, April 05, 2007.

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