How Do Pets Factor into Divorce?
Many people love their pets almost as much as their children, and would be devastated if their pets were no longer in their lives. Divorce is one of those situations that often challenges how the possession and care of pets will be divided by the couple, and having children in the mix, who may also be attached to the animal, makes negotiating an arrangement much harder. Pets are typically very intertwined in their owners’ lives, and it is not uncommon for pets to spend a considerable amount each day with their owner, and accompany him/her to work or to run errands. Thus, the potential loss of a beloved pet in divorce means spouses tend to hotly dispute this issue, and want courts to step in and decide the matter. State legislatures are slowly recognizing the need for comprehensive laws related to pets, custody, and divorce, with California being the most recent addition to a group that allows courts to take the pet’s care into consideration, and assess the animal’s welfare, rather than as an asset to be divided, when addressing this issue. California’s new law, effective January 1, 2019, will specifically allow owners to petition for sole or shared custody of the animal, which is intended to ensure the pet’s caretaker truly provides for the pet’s needs. Florida does not have a similar law on the books, so it is important for pet owners to understand how family law judges will decide custody of the animal at the front-end of the process.
Status of Pets in Divorce
Since Florida does not have a law designating pets as an issue that should be evaluated separately from the general division of property, such as child custody, pets are lumped in with all marital property, and are divided according to standards of equity or fairness. Of course, pets are not the same as deciding who gets the toaster oven, but the law does not offer courts much guidance when it comes to this issue, nor does a judge have an obligation to assess which owner would provide the better home. Thus, how pet disputes will be resolved varies greatly by the judge, making the outcome very uncertain.
How Courts Address Pet Custody Issues
Since pets are considered personal property under Florida law, judges will often assign the animal a value, just like any other asset, and if the spouses cannot agree on an arrangement, award the animal to one party, and give the other different assets of equivalent value. Further, if the pet was acquired by one spouse prior to the marriage, the pet would be considered separate property, and automatically be the sole possession of the original owner, regardless of the attachment from the other spouse. Perhaps more importantly, courts will not entertain visitation schedules for pets, and focus on which spouse will receive ownership and possession. This approach is understandably untenable for many owners, leading to years of litigation to resolve the issue. Judges do have a sense of how important pets are in today’s families, though, and will take additional factors into consideration, though spouses are best advised to try to work pet custody privately. Examples of factors that could persuade a judge to give a pet to one spouse over the other include:
- A rare or expensive pet that is worth considerable amounts of money, requiring a spouse to give up more assets to gain possession;
- If the pet serves as emotional support or is classified as a therapy animal;
- Which spouse can better provide for the pet; and
- Which spouse has the most time with children, who are often attached to the animal.
Speak to a Divorce Attorney
The issues of divorce are numerous, and pet custody is just one consideration among many. If you are thinking of divorce, talk to an experienced divorce attorney before triggering the process to ensure all your interests are included from the beginning. The attorneys at the office of Joyce A. Julian, P.A. know what you are facing, and will work to get you the best possible outcome. Contact the Fort Lauderdale office for a free consultation.