A recent survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association reveals that 68% of households in the United States own a pet.  It is very likely that the dogs, cats, and other animals residing in most of these 84.6 million homes are treated like treasured members of the family.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that when people get divorced, they may fight like cats and dogs over…well…their cats and dogs.  In fact, one of the most common questions we are asked during consultations is “what will happen to my pet when I get divorced?”

Of course, the best thing to do would be to reach a mutually-agreeable decision regarding the care of your pet which will work for you, your former partner, and your family. However, if you are unable to do so, the court will have to make a decision for you.

Many people are surprised to hear that in New Jersey (and most states across the country), the family pet is considered to be property in the eyes of the law. This means that instead of a judge making a custody determination as it would with a child, the court will give the pet to a party as part of the property division process known as equitable distribution.

However, this does not mean that Rover or Fluffy will be treated in the same fashion as the master bedroom set or the bicycles in the garage.

While courts in New Jersey have found that pets are not equal to children and, therefore, are not subject to what is known as a “best interests” analysis, courts have also recognized that pets have a sentimental and unique worth that cannot be valued in dollars and cents.

Therefore, when courts are left to make the “ruff” decision about what will happen to a family pet upon divorce, a judge may may take a number of things into consideration in addition to the typical equitable distribution criteria. These additional considerations include, but are not limited to:
• Whether a party is seeking to keep the family pet for sincere reasons or out of greed or malice toward the other party;
• Significantly, whether the pet was purchased or adopted by one of the parties before the marriage or inception of a relationship, or whether the pet was a gift from one party to the other;
• Who cared for the pet – who trained it, walked it, and fed it;
• Who took the pet to the veterinarian and paid for the pet’s care; and
• Importantly, whether the parties have children, and the children’s relationship and attachment to the pet. If one party will be retaining primary custody of the children, this party may also have a better chance of retaining ownership of the family pet.

In rare cases, upon consideration of these factors, a court may order joint possession of a pet. However, in most cases, a family pet will be awarded to only one party upon the conclusion of a divorce matter.

Pets are important and valued members of our families. It is likely that you and your family members know far more about what is best for your pet than anyone else. However, the decision as to what happens to a pet can be a very emotional and trying part of the divorce process. Many of us at Paras, Apy & Reiss, P.C. are pet owners, and with a special understanding of your concerns, we are here to assist you in any way we can.

The information in this article is not intended as legal advice. For legal advice, you should consult your attorney.