New Jersey couples who are divorcing will usually need to work out issues involving property division, child custody and support, but they may also have to decide what to do with their pets. Increasingly, couples are negotiating issues regarding their dogs and cats including custody, visitation and responsibility for exercise and expenses.
While the law has traditionally viewed pets as personal property, this is subtly evolving, and a 2013 case in New York is considered a legal landmark. A one-day hearing was granted to a same-sex couple about the ownership of a dog that one had given to the other. The woman who purchased the puppy said that she had financially supported it, but the other woman said she was initially the owner.
The hearing dealt with issues such as the care of the dog and its well-being, and it revolved around what was best not just for the couple but for the animal as well. Increasingly, couples are also including these types of issues in agreements entered into prior or during their marriages.
Pet owners who are going through a divorce may want to raise this issue in their negotiations with their spouse. In some cases, depending on how attached they are to their pets, they might choose to relinquish some other assets in exchange for custody of the pet. For example, one spouse might want the computer or a piece of furniture more while the other person may want to be able to keep the couple’s two dogs. If a negotiated settlement is not forthcoming, it may be possible based on the precedent set in New York to have a court hear the case and make a decision about how the custody of the pets might be fairly divided. In some cases the non-custodial owner can request that the court approve a visitation schedule.
Source: USA Today, “Pets increasingly at center of divorce battles”, Cameron Saucier, Aug. 24, 2014