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)