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Pets in the Modern Family

January 13, 2015 | Posted In Family Law - Family Law

The modern couple is one that celebrates stages of commitment, such as moving in together, sharing a car, getting engaged, and, as is becoming increasingly more popular, buying a new pet to care for and own jointly. Our social media newsfeeds are filled with posts and pictures about couples and their “babies,” only in this case, the baby is a new puppy, kitten or iguana -- a pet considered part of the family.

Couples in a relationship at this stage typically spend a significant amount of time and money on their new pets, caring for, training, and enjoying this animal that has become much like a child. Modern couple ideals have been updated to incorporate this new stage in commitment and family, but the laws regarding pet ownership have yet to be modified accordingly, which makes it much more difficult to determine who gets the pet in the event of a breakup.

As shared pets become more and more common in our society today, pet custody disputes are gaining in recognition as well and pet owners who wish to separate may find themselves frustrated by the legal language that governs ownership of their beloved animals.

What Happens to My Pet?

Every state, including New Jersey, considers a pet to be an item of property, and as such, cannot be given a custody arrangement as children in a divorce would be granted. But because pets have such special meaning to families today, state courts typically consider the following range of factors to help them determine which ex-partner owns the pet:

  1. Time – New Jersey courts will take into account which partner has spent the most amount of time with the pet throughout a relationship or marriage. Usually, a pet forms a more significant bond with the person it sees the most, and will be extremely stressed or upset if separated.
  2. Children – If children are involved in the relationship, the court will often consider who is granted primary custody of them. A pet may help children transition better after the divorce or break-up of their parental figures.
  3. Care – The court will also investigate who took care of the pet’s basic needs during the relationship, including food, water, shelter, and veterinary care. If the pet is a dog, courts will evaluate ownership based on who took the dog for walks and kept it groomed.

Keeping the Family Together

Unfortunately, most courtrooms do not yet consider pets part of the family, and do not apply “best interest of the child” standards to custody cases. Although the parties involved may feel very strongly about their pets as their loved ones, custody issues and ownership does not always work out in their favor. At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our family attorneys suggest that clients try to plead their cases in family court, as they may be able to diffuse an emotional situation. To discuss your case, contact one of our family lawyers today. 

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