Negotiating a Pet Custody Agreement

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Negotiating a Pet Custody Agreement

Custody of pets in divorce

For some spouses, deciding who gets custody of the family dog, cat, or another beloved pet is often one of the most upsetting issues to be decided. The issue of custody of a dog in a breakup can become quite contentious. Deciding who gets custody of a terrier, collie, cocker spaniel, or another dog may become more complex if a child is attached to the family dog or another pet.Two people pulling opposite directions on a dog's leash.

Generally, New Jersey does not treat pets like children. You cannot ask a judge to formally award custody of a dog or pet to one parent or the other parent. Judges can but not do not have to make decisions about the joint custody of a dog. From the judge’s viewpoint, the family pet is considered property in the same way that a car or jewelry is considered property. The judge, if the spouses cannot work out an agreement, will normally factor the pet into his/her equitable division of property award. 

As a practical matter, spouses should consider negotiating a pet custody agreement on their own. It is better to resolve the custody and visitation of pets in divorce settlements than to have a judge assign the dog to one parent or another in the same way a bank account would be assigned to one spouse or another.

Issues to consider when negotiating a pet custody agreement

Dog shared custody and cat shared custody are best resolved through agreements. Many of the issues and concerns are similar to the concerns parents use when drafting custody and visitation agreements for children. These issues can be addressed in a written agreement by a skilled New Jersey family lawyer.

Skilled family lawyers can negotiate sharing custody of a dog by negotiating a pet custody agreement that addresses the following:

  •       Which parent will have the dog each day of the year.
  •       What the duties of the parent are to provide and take care of the dog.
  •       How the dog is transferred from one parent to the other.
  •       Where the dog stays while residing with each parent.
  •       The rights of the children to spend time with the dog if the dog and child do not have the same visitation schedules.
  •       Who pays for veterinary care, medications, food, and other pet needs.

While family law judges will generally not consider custody agreements for dogs, cats, or other parents – mediators may consider negotiating a pet custody agreement. The collaborative divorce process may also consider negotiating a pet custody agreement.

Factors to consider when negotiating a pet custody agreement

When parents, mediators, or collaborative divorce professionals consider negotiating a pet custody agreement, they may consider the following factors:

  •       Whether a spouse owned the pet before the marriage.
  •       Who spent the most time caring for the dog, cat, or other pet including walking the dog and taking the pet to the veterinarian.
  •       How well the pet bonded with each parent.
  •       Which parent has room for the pet?
  •       Where the children will be living. The bond between a child and parent is important for both. Children who are going through a divorce often need the security of a friendship with a beloved pet. Even your dog may know that a divorce has taken place.
  •       Who can take care of the pet? For example, if one spouse works from home and the other parent works at an office, the stay-at-home parent is the more logical choice to have primary custody of the dog or other pet.

When negotiating a pet custody agreement, it is important to consider what happens when things go wrong. If the pet needs to be taken to the vet, then it should be clear that the parent who has custody at the time should take the pet to the vet. 

Disputes about custody may occur. These disputes could be based on how well the dog is doing living in separate homes. There could be disputes about a parent who doesn’t reliably transfer or pick up the dog.

Lawyers and parents should consider, when negotiating a pet custody agreement, how disputes will be resolved. Judges may consider enforcing a pet custody agreement but it’s generally better to set forth how disputes will be resolved in the agreement – so each parent understands their roles.

Based on the Houseman v. Dare decision; pet ownership is generally based on contract law. While pets are personal property, their unique sentimental value should be considered. New Jersey family courts can enter joint possession orders for family animals.

If you own a pet before the marriage, you might even consider a pet prenuptial agreement.

At DeTorres & DeGeorge Family Law, our family lawyers are skilled negotiators. We negotiate equitable division of property, child custody, and child support. We are also skilled at negotiating a pet custody agreement. To discuss negotiating a pet custody agreement, call us at 908-691-2104 or fill out our contact form. We have offices in Clinton and Morristown.

Erin D. DeGeorge
Erin D. DeGeorge joined DeTorres & DeGeorge, LLC as partner to the firm in June of 2010. Prior to joining DeTorres & DeGeorge, Erin was associated with the national firm of Fox Rothschild LLP and Cutler, Simeone, Townsend, Tomaio & Newmark, LLC...
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