The concept of pets has evolved tremendously over time, transforming the status of animals such as dogs and cats from four-legged workers to valued members of the family. Dogs, especially, retain much of the physicality that made them effective security guards, sheep herders, etc., from the days when they were universally considered “property”. These days, dogs generally serve as companions, to the point where most owners regard them as “children”. This level of devotion has led to countless disputes over who gets custody of the pets in the event of a separation or divorce.
Court systems in the United States. however, generally classify pets as “property”, regardless of public sentiment. This is definitely the case in New Jersey, in which numerous custody and personal injury claims have continually failed to changed the legal status of pets. Hence, disputes over who gets to keep the pet have to be filed as a property or contractual dispute, rather than a custody motion. The difference is a critical legal issue, since “custody” refers to the guardianship of a human child or incapacitated adult. Although many judges are pet owners themselves, and are sympathetic to the plight of other pet owners, they remain reluctant to elevate the status of pets to the same level as human beings.
The way pet disputes may be resolved in the superior courts is illustrated in cases such as Houseman v. Dare (2009). In this case, a former unmarried couple, who had lived together, were fighting over ownership of their dog. The former boyfriend acknowledged that he had verbally agreed to let his ex keep the dog in the event of a breakup, but since he was the registered owner, the trial court allowed him to keep the dog and pay $1,500 to his ex as compensation. The former girlfriend appealed, saying that the court should have enforced the verbal contract. The Appellate Division agreed on the basis that since the dog was property, the courts must ultimately defer to the contractual agreement, which was that the former girlfriend would keep the dog if they separated.
The Appellate court also rejected the former boyfriend's claim that giving her the dog would be unjustly rewarding her, while being unduly harsh towards him. This may have been a factor in a custody dispute, as would other legal considerations such as the “best interests standard”, but ultimately, a dog is not on the same level as a child, at least not in the legal sense. It was, however, acknowledged that the dog had significant subjective value -- similar to a family heirloom -- that could not be completely disregarded. Thus offering money in exchange for the dog was not sufficient compensation.
While the couple in Houseman v. Dare were not married, the case does give good insights into how pet disputes would be resolved in a divorce. For more information on your marital property rights and legal options, please consult the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.