By: Carl A. Taylor III

First, what I’m going to say in this post could also apply to cats and perhaps other pets as well.  But I’m a dog person and it’s easier to focus on just one animal.  Plus, I don’t want to risk upsetting my Shetland Sheepdog, Hailey, by choosing cats over dogs in this hypothetical analysis.

Second, I want to note that the issue of dogs and divorce doesn’t come up as often as non-divorce attorneys might believe it does.

Have there been cases where people have spent years and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over their beloved family dog?  Yes, but those are the exceptions to the rule (and the parties extremely rich).

Most dog-related issues in a divorce are worked out amicably, as part of the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (a/k/a Property Settlement Agreement).  Please note that this is an area of law that is in flux.

Who Gets the Dog?

The truth is, it depends.  Here’s the important question: who’s the Judge?

I’ve heard a tale (perhaps it’s an urban legend, but my source is good) where a Judge once told a couple fighting over their dog: “Both parties need to agree to an arrangement for the dog within 48 hours, or I will Rule that the Dog will be sent to the SPCA.”

Such modern-day “King Solomon” types of rulings are increasingly rarer, as pets are more often being seen as a “part of the family” rather than merely property, or “chattel.”  Still, although dogs are getting more respect from New Jersey courtrooms, they are still currently only seen as an “elevated” form of property, on par with family heirlooms, for example.

Factors 

Again, it’s unlikely a Judge will have to make a call on this issue.  But if they did, there is a number of ways they could rule.  They could give “custody” of the dog (note: New Jersey does NOT recognize pet custody), to one party or the other.  They could aso find the dog should be given to a third party (very rare).  Or, they can come up with a doggie parenting plan.

“Husband gets Fido whenever he has parenting time with the kids” would be a good example of this.  Another would be: “Wife gets Spot one month, Husband gets Spot the next.”  And on and on.

Some of the factors the Court might look to include:

  • Did the dog belong to one of the parties prior to the marriage?
  • Are there children who are attached to the Dog?
  • Who treats the dog better/has a greater bond with the dog?
  • Does one party have a history of abuse, towards the dog or otherwise?
Conclusion
I love dogs as much as the next person.  I can see wanting to fight strongly for a dog in a divorce.  But I also believe that more times than not, it’s the parties who are better able to work out an arrangement with respect to their dogs (or other pets), rather than the Courts.
Such a resolution should lead to less hostility, less legal and court fees expended by both parties, and a fairer resolution in the best interests of the parties’ Dog(s).

If the tide is turning one way, however, it appears that the courts are beginning to consider pets more and more as a part of the family rather than simply a possession.  Something us pet owners have known all along.

Your New Jersey Divorce Lawyer:

If you’re considering a New Jersey divorce or Family Law action contact me to discuss your options.  You can schedule an initial consultation by calling my office at 908-237-3096 or by scheduling your own divorce consultation online by clicking here.