Gina Calogero, Esq.

Practicing family law for almost 30 years, I have seen many changes in how the law defines a “family.” If you’ve ever had a domestic companion animal, you probably treat your pet dog or cat as a member of the family. You have hundreds or thousands of videos and photos on your phone. You sign their name to birthday cards. You send your spouse “Mother’s Day” or “Father’s Day” cards from the dog. You draw little paw prints on the cards. And maybe you even go trick or treating with your pets in matching costumes.  

But in New Jersey – in fact, in all 50 states – animals are property.   

So what happens when a family dissolves? All states have a comprehensive system of statutes and common law decisions governing how to handle custody and parenting time of our children, but what about our pets? Who gets Fido and Fluffy? What are the standards?  

Doreen Houseman & Dexter the pug

Like so many situations where the law takes time to catch up with reality, I’ve seen judges go through legal contortions to create an exception or explain how to get the right result, despite the bleak picture painted by those three words: Animals are property. And until a landmark decision in 2009, it was like rolling the dice. If my case came before an animal-friendly judge, I had a chance. But when I represented Doreen Houseman in her dispute over Dexter the pug, the judge concluded the case with these harsh words: “He may be cute, and he may be furry, but he’s still a DOG.” Reasoning that he had a courtroom full of children who didn’t know where they were going to sleep tonight, the trial judge refused to grant custody of a dog.  

So, we appealed. And in a landmark decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed his ruling. Houseman v Dare, taught in law schools throughout the United States, stands for the proposition that judges can enforce dog-sharing agreements. Moreover, if the parties were unable to come to an agreement, the court could fashion a schedule for dog sharing. The standard is not who paid for the dog (or cat) or the name on the dog license or adoption contract. It is the “special subjective value” of the pet to the party. The court will grant relief to someone who sues out of a genuine attachment to a pet, based on the length and depth of their relationship, but not to someone who is motivated by “greed, ill-will or other sentiment or motive similarly unworthy of protection in a court of equity.” 

In other words, it’s about love. How appropriate!  

If you need an attorney that will fight for your animal as hard as they fight for you, give us a call today at 973-744-2980 or fill out our online form.