Having a pet offers all kinds of benefits. Your companion animal can help stave off loneliness when your spouse is away on a business trip or motivate you to get out and exercise. Your entire family likely has a strong emotional attachment to your pet, which means that your cat or dog could be a serious point of contention when you file for divorce.
Your spouse probably loves your pet as much as you do. Even if they don’t care about the animal very much, they may ask for it in the divorce to ensure that you don’t get it. How do the New Jersey family courts handle a dispute about who keeps your companion animal in a divorce?
A pet could be one spouse’s separate property
If you signed a marital agreement with your spouse, that contract might talk about what happens to your pet when you divorce. You could also have already owned the pet when you got married. If you can show that the pet is your separate property, and you won’t have to worry about it in court because it will be yours in the eyes of the law.
What if you have to go to court?
If the pet is an animal that you bought or adopted during the marriage, then it will likely be part of your marital estate. You and your spouse both have a claim to it, and the judge will have to decide who keeps the animal.
If a couple shares children, the judge must consider the best interests of the kids when dividing custody. A pet is not a person, and the court will not consider shared custody over an animal. Instead, the animal will be worth a fixed amount of money and one spouse will keep it. New Jersey law does not allow for much more consideration than that.
However, there is legal precedent in the state that can allow one spouse a stronger claim to the animal based on their “special subjective value” in the mind of the person who loves them. The courts may consider the pet more like an heirloom and less like a basic belonging if either spouse claims a strong attachment to the animal.
Depending on your personal history, your custody arrangement and the animal’s needs, you may have a more compelling case than your spouse. Understanding the big property division issues that may complicate your divorce can help you plan for court or negotiate with your spouse.