Ruff Love: What Happens to Pets in Divorce?

Ruff Love: What Happens to Pets in Divorce?

When two adults divorce, the decision of who gets what property falls under specific guidelines defined by a state’s rule of law. Because pets are currently defined as property in most states, Florida’s best divorce attorneys are constantly negotiating an equitable distribution of this “property” for their clients—meaning, your dog will likely get lumped in the settlement with the pool furniture.

The best course of action to take when an animal’s owners separate, tends to be one where the animal’s welfare first is prioritized, and there is agreement on a fair means of co-ownership. Increasingly, however, former couples are finding it difficult to put aside their differences and come to a mutual understanding. When two sides cannot find agreement, and instead ask that the court step in, the issue can’t help but take on the feeling of a child custody decision.

In a Florida case, Bennet vs. Bennet, one party received visitation rights, while the other was given primary custody of their dog, “Roddy.” In response to the court’s ruling, both parties filed motions to amend and modify the custody situation, resulting in appeals that compare to what is seen in child custody cases. The appellate court, hampered by a string of requests, determined that this was surely not the best use of court resources, as child custody appeals already take up so much time. It was determined that the courts cannot and should not bear a greater custody burden by deciding the fate of animal welfare in addition to children. The resulting decision was that pets be viewed similar to every other type of marital property and should be divided equally.

But that was in 1993.

In 2019, one could make the case that pets have come to fill a far more prominent place in our lives than 26 years ago. In fact, with birth rates continuing to fall, and ongoing Millenial career churn, you may make the case that pet owners have opted for dogs as a “generational stand-in” for children. And as more and more dogs fly coach or eat grain-free longevity diets, it is safe to say that our society has shifted its view of pets as something more than mere property.

This attitude is becoming more visible in courts nationally, though progress is slow. While still primarily addressed as a property issue, new strategies are emerging in courtrooms across the country to bring attention to the issue. While some judges elect to expand their approach beyond the common law view of the 1990s, a majority of judges turn down inordinate requests, generally citing a “Lack of authority to make an exception to the property treatment.” (McLain)

In West Palm Beach, Florida, where the state divides marital property equitably, a pet will typically be placed with one owner, without any “court-appointed visitation” scheduled. As a result, in cases where both owners have strong relationships with the pet, many are willing to pay for drawn-out court proceedings to try and win ownership.

To avoid having your pet’s livelihood decided by a court-appointed property determination, the most favorable circumstance is for spouses to agree on a schedule for pet visitation or sharing. If that fails to take shape, Brodie Friedman Marital and Family Law Attorneys are prepared to help guide you through options such as mediation, collaborative divorce, and other effective dispute resolution techniques with proven results.

Like so many issues when it comes to divorce, pet custody tends to bring out frustrations from both parties, yet many people are not informed, or cannot imagine, that their pets will be looked at as “things” in the eyes of the court—and that they must have a plan ready to defend them. Thankfully, with Boca Raton’s Best Divorce Lawyers on their side, pet owners won’t be looked at merely as things either.

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