Most states, including New Jersey, consider pets to be personal property. Therefore, laws regarding pet custody do not apply as they would for human children. In the case of divorce, if a couple can agree on pet custody arrangements, a New Jersey family court will enforce that agreement. However, if no custody agreement can be reached, the court will decide based on a set of criteria in one landmark case involving pet custody in New Jersey.
That 2009 case — Houseman v. Dare — involved an engaged couple that ended their long-term relationship and was contesting the custody of their dog. They purchased the dog together, and both were registered as the dog’s owners. When the woman left, she took the dog after the couple had a verbal agreement that he would keep the house and she would keep the dog. While the couple did not have a written agreement as to visitation or other ownership rights, the woman would occasionally bring the dog over to her ex-fiancé’s home to visit.
When the woman left on vacation, she left the dog with her ex-fiancé. Upon her return, he refused to give the dog back and she filed a lawsuit to regain custody, contending that her ex-fiancé had breached their verbal agreement. The court found in favor of the ex-fiancé and awarded her $1,500 for the original purchase price of the dog. She appealed that decision.
The appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the case back to the trial court for further review. The trial court then decided on a shared custody arrangement, with the couple alternating possession of the dog every five weeks.
The Houseman decision set the following precedent in New Jersey:
- While still considered personal property, pets have a unique sentimental value that cannot be quantified with a price tag.
- Rulings on pet ownership are rooted in contract law, not the “best interest of the animal.”
- New Jersey courts may issue shared possession orders for family pets.
- In cases alleging an oral agreement as to pet ownership, courts may hold hearings to determine which party has a greater attachment to the pet.
A judge may weigh a number of factors when it comes to pet custody, including:
- If one party owned the pet prior to the relationship
- Who spends the most time with the pet
- Who is the primary caregiver of the pet
- Where the children will be living (since pets can help minimize the stress of divorce and keeping the pet in the custodial home may be considered in the best interest of the child)
If you are bringing a beloved pet into a new marriage, consider a prenuptial agreement that addresses the pet custody issue. If you are facing divorce and there is no written agreement about pet custody, you may need to make some concessions in your divorce agreement negotiations in exchange for possession of the pet.
We know that family law issues are often difficult, life-changing events. We also know how much it helps to have knowledgeable legal advocates on your side to help you obtain the best possible outcome. Contact us today for your free consultation.