While this area of civil law is new and progressively changing, in most states, including Florida, pets are still seen as personal property and distributed as such. Therefore, if one of the parties owned the pet previous to the marriage, they would be awarded the animal. However, if the pet was acquired during the marriage, then it would be valued based on fair market value and divided 50/50. For example, if you have a purebred English Bulldog that could be sold for $3,000, whichever party keeps the dog must pay the other party $1,500. So unfortunately, for those of you who were hoping for some sort of split custody, ruling this is not currently done by the courts.
Although, there is a landmark case out of New Jersey in 2009, Houseman v. Dare, where the couple had originally made their own oral agreement about shared custody. Mrs. Houseman would have ownership and Mr. Dare would have visitation rights. This arrangement worked for a few years. Then one day it all came crumbling down when Mr. Dare decided he did not want to give the dog back. In this case the court based their decision off contract law and ordered specific performance of the original agreement. Even though, the court did not decide custody, they opened the door for the idea that a pet is more than just personal property.
Another approach discussed in Houseman v. Dare was the idea that even some inanimate objects are hard to price, based on sentimental value. Seeing as courts have evaluated subjective value in the past, this is a standard they could use towards determining a pets value, as opposed to fair market or replacement value.
Also, acting out of the norm, there are courts in New York and Virginia where the idea that the “best interest of the animal” was more important than actual property rights and ownership. Again, no shared custody was assigned by the court but the fact that they saw the pet as more than just an object is extremely significant.
The law offices of Ronald M. Zakarin, PA would love to answer any questions you have about what happens to pets after a divorce. Feel free to contact us with any concerns you may have. We are here to help you in your time of need.