What Is Pet Custody and How Is it Decided?
Ownership and custody of pets is an evolving issue in divorce law. Historically, pets have been treated strictly as personal property. The family court would place a nominal economic value on the pet and ownership would be given to one spouse. Also, a family member’s attachment to the pet and the animal’s well-being were not factors previously considered by the court.
Florida is firmly rooted in the tradition of treating pets as personal property. An animal’s well-being and human attachment to a pet are currently outside the scope of state judicial authority. Ownership is usually determined by “equitable distribution” of the fair market value. However, a family court judge may also deem a pet a non-marital asset that is not subject to distribution. For example, if one spouse acquired the pet before the marriage or received the pet as a gift during the marriage, that spouse would likely keep it in the divorce.
A few states grant pets special protection, taking into consideration the animal’s physical needs and emotional well-being for marital property distribution. Other relevant factors may include each spouse’s financial and physical ability to care for the pet. Courts may also consider how the pet was acquired (i.e., gifted to or purchased by one spouse) when deciding ownership.
A small minority of states follow the “best interests” doctrine as to pets in divorce cases. This means that the animal’s physical and emotional well-being can be an important factor in deciding who keeps the pet. A few courts have even issued “custody” orders wherein each party spends time with the pet on a regular schedule. This extraordinary shift in the treatment of animals is generally the result of judicial rulings rather than changes to state statutes. Therefore, development of this body of law has been slow and sporadic.
Whether Florida’s treatment of pets in divorce matters will change over time remains to be seen. For now, anyone divorcing with a pet in the household should attempt to negotiate pet ownership with the other party. Florida courts have not yet significantly expanded legal protection for pets.
Located in Orlando, Timothy W. Terry, Attorney at Law, is one of central Florida’s most respected family law attorneys. If you are seeking or responding to a divorce petition and concerned about who will get the beloved family pet, call 407-495-2399 or contact my office online for an initial consultation.