Divorce and the Pet Dog

On behalf of Ronald H. Kauffman, P.A. posted in Divorce on Tuesday, November 26, 2013.

An ever increasing problem in divorce is over who gets to keep the pet dog and cat during and after the divorce. Imagine you’ve been married for 12 years, but you don’t have any children. Your Labrador Retriever is your closest friend, guardian and constant companion. The problem is your soon-to-be ex-husband or ex-wife feels the same way.

Nearly a quarter of divorce lawyers surveyed across the country have noticed an increase in pet-custody cases in the last five years, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. The article can be read here.

There is a shift occurring in our society in which the … pet is considered more a member of the family … and therefore becomes sadly a part of the battle when the family disintegrates,” said Joyce Tischler, founding director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization based in Northern California.

A 2001 survey by the American Animal Hospital Association found that 83 percent of pet owners refer to themselves as their pet’s “mom” or “dad.” That relationship is not acknowledged by the courts, where pets are still considered property, no different from the silverware, the plasma TV and the living-room sofa.

So, who does a judge award your Chocolate Lab to? Can a judge order a timesharing schedule? Any visits at all? Clients often come to me with their concerns about pets in the divorce.

Your chocolate lab may be considered a member of the family to you, but under Florida law, “Brownie” is merely chattel – personal property to be divided in divorce. A judge lacks authority to grant custody or award visitation or a timesharing schedule to personal property.

Not all states have ruled out a visitation schedule for dogs. For instance, while Texas also views dogs as personal property, in one case a Texas court authorized visitation.

Florida doesn’t because Florida courts are already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of children, that courts cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.