Telling you that I love my dogs would be an understatement. I ADORE my dogs. Quill, a chihuahua/Pomeranian/shepherd dog mix is the empath. At 17 pounds, he is both portable and the best cuddle dog out there. His sympathetic snuggles when he can tell something is wrong takes away stress and sadness like nothing else can. Rocket, all 11 pounds of chug (chihuahua/pug mix) is the entertainment. He is adorable and crazy and makes us laugh with his doggy antics. They are both rescues from Manhattan and they both come from the same kill shelter in Tennessee. For a guy that never had so much as a fish in his life by way of pets before them, these two are magic.
People everywhere adore their dogs as much as I do. More than just pets, people’s dogs become members of the family. We cannot imagine our lives without them. But what happens to these beloved family members in the midst of a divorce? It’s no surprise that divorcing couples have been fighting over family dogs for decades. At the end of the day, like all other parts of the marriage, the couple either agrees or a Judge makes the call. Aside from children, of course, determining who will get to keep the beloved dogs can be one of the most emotional aspects of the divorce.
In New Jersey, dogs and other pets are treated as property. Yes, you read that right, our special little pups are reduced to a table lamp in the courts’ eyes. Of course, most courts do recognize the emotional attachment involved with pets, and that who keeps them after a divorce warrants some consideration. Often times one of the most important considerations is whether the dog was “pre-marital property.” In other words, did the animal come into the relationship with one of the parties? If Rover was a puppy and was with Husband A when he met Husband B and they were married, a good argument is that Rover belongs to Husband A. But what if Husband B gets really close with Rover throughout the course of the marriage and has taken over most of the responsibilities of caring for him? Is Rover considered a “commingled asset?”
Courts have dealt with this issue in a variety of ways. It is not uncommon to see joint “custody” granted. Just as with custody of children, a “parenting” time schedule is established and must be adhered to. Emergency relief has been granted in cases where one party does not follow the custody schedule, an order to show cause that I personally would happily file for a dog lover. A less caring way of dealing with the issue is like any other piece of joint property that cannot be divided- one party pays the other half the value of the item. This solution comes with its own host of problems; mainly, how does one put a monetary value on companionship and unconditional love?
Another thing to consider is whether the couple has children, and their attachment to a dog. If one parent has custody of the children for 75% of the time, it would be a good idea to examine the relationship between the dog and the children. Does the dog go between homes with the kids? Does the dog stay at the primary parent’s home? Is it going too far to think about what’s in the dog’s best interest, or is it just far enough?
The hope is that most couples can take a commonsense approach to the issue and consider the best arrangements for the dog. But like all things in a divorce, this can be a hard compromise. No matter what, couples need to make sure that even through a contentious divorce, our furry friends are treated with love and care.