Pets in a New Jersey Divorce or Separation

Like other family members, pets are also valued members of a family. These loved pets are treated like special family members and are treasured as more than just property. However, problems in regard to pet custody may arise when relationships end in separation or divorce. Who should take possession of said pet in a NJ divorce or separation?

There is currently no statute regarding pet custody, and so it remains a problem to many couples going through a divorce in NJ. Over the past decades, New Jersey courts considered a pet simply as personal property, much like couches, beds, tables, and so on. Following a divorce or separation in New Jersey, these pets were awarded to either spouse or partner as personal property. Arguments have been raised in regard to pet custody, stressing that owners have placed high premiums on pets and have treated these much like their heirlooms. Some arguments also emphasized that a pet is not just property, but has unique value which cannot be replaced with monetary compensation.

In the case of Houseman v. Dare, 405 N.J Super 538. (App. Div. 2009) an engaged couple who shared ownership of their pet dog ended their relationship. Houseman claimed that they had a verbal agreement to share ownership of the dog, until Dare refused to make the dog available for visitation. Houseman sued Dare seeking enforcement of the verbal agreement to share custody. The lower court granted Dare custody of the dog and ordered him to compensate Housemen. Then Houseman appealed arguing that the pet had an unique value which could not be compensated with money. The issue before the Appellate Division was whether specific performance of the alleged verbal agreement was the correct remedy. The Appellate Division held that there was a “special subjective value” of the dog to Houseman. Therefore, a financial award would not be adequate to compensate her if there was an agreement to share custody. The Appellate Division remanded the case to the trial judge for further proceedings regarding whether an oral agreement about ownership and possession existed and if specific performance of said agreement should be granted. On remand, following a hearing the trial court concluded that parties did not have an oral agreement. However, the trial court ordered Houseman and Dare to each have sole possession of the dog at certain times during the year. It is important to note that the trial court did not use the best interest analysis as used in child custody cases.

The below stated factors may be considered by a court in deciding a pet custody case in New Jersey. The ownership of the pet before the start of the relationship is taken into account. The courts will also consider which of the spouses did most of the daily pet care such as feeding, walking, and visits to the vet. Who pays for the pet’s food and other veterinarian bills is also considered a factor. In addition, whoever has better capacity to continue taking care of the pet when the divorce is finalized will be considered. And lastly, the children are considered as the greatest factors of determining pet custody. If the couple have children who have special bonds with the pet, the courts will first determine who among the couple has custody of the children. In most cases, the spouse with primary custody of the children will also gain custody of the pet. However, there may be schedules for visits when the other spouse wants to see the children, as well as the pet.

The issue of who is granted possession of a pet is very fact sensitive. If you are experiencing a divorce in NJ or a separation and have a pet issue, you can contact the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen who are experienced divorce lawyers for a free consultation. Give us a call today. 

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