What Happens to Family Pets in Divorce?

March 2, 2015

For a divorcing couple with pets, the question of who gets to keep the pets is likely an important issue. About half of American households have a pet, and many people develop emotional attachments to their animals. Some pet owners even regard their pets as akin to children. When a couple divorces, Florida provides for  time-sharing agreements to determine child custody. But, Florida does not treat pets like children. Florida courts will not order time-sharing or custody arrangements for pets.

Instead, Florida law, like most states, treats pets as personal property, like a car or a sofa. Pets in a Florida divorce are thus subject to  equitable distribution. Equitable distribution is Florida’s method for dividing property in the event of a divorce. It gives a judge the authority to divide property, including pets, between the divorcing spouses. Thus, after a divorce, pets will be owned by either one party of the other. Judges will not grant visitation rights or order support.

Property Settlement

For a divorcing couple with pets, it is best if the spouses can make pet-related decisions on their own, outside the courtroom, and include those decisions in their property settlement. In coming to an amicable agreement, they can take into account issues like who has time and space for the pet, who has the best relationship with the pet, or what the pet’s best interests dictate. Also, if spouses come to an agreement outside the courtroom, they can agree on shared custody or visitation if they so desire.

Unfortunately, pets are sometimes used as bargaining chips in contentious divorces, and spouses sometimes fight for ownership of the pets out of spite or to demonstrate control. In this event, mediation, arbitration, or negotiation can be used to solve this problem, and the services of an attorney can help in this situation.

Equitable Distribution

If the spouses do not come to an agreement on their own, the judge will assign the pet to one party or the other, based on the principles of equitable distribution. Judges may take into account issues such as whether one spouse owned the pet before the marriage or which spouse would be the best fit to permanently care for the pet. Judges may also take into account which spouse any children are living with, and choose to keep the pet with the children to provide maximum stability for the children. Some judges may even consider the pet’s best interest; who has the financial ability, time, and space for the pet; or who is the most reliable owner. However, in the end, the judge will assign the animal to either one spouse or the other.

Florida’s First District Court of Appeal ruled on the issue of pets as personal property in  Bennett v. Bennett in 1995. The court held that, “[w]hile a dog may be considered by many to be a member of the family, under Florida law, animals are considered to be personal property. There is no authority that provides for a trial court to grant custody or visitation pertaining to personal property.” The court also pointed out that Florida courts are already overwhelmed with having to determine child custody, visitation, and support without further burdening them by introducing issues of pet custody.

If you are going through a divorce and have pets to consider, the assistance of an attorney can be very helpful in determining a fair, out-of-court property settlement, so that you can agree to the best arrangement for you and your pet. Please contact  West Palm Beach family law attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.