In many homes, pets are treated as part of the family but in the eyes of most divorce courts in the U.S., including Florida, the law views our furry friends as nothing more than marital property—meaning, like your home, they are awarded to one or the other party.
Treatment of pets as property can get contentious. Considering special relationships families form with a beloved pet, losing time with one can be utterly heart-breaking. As show in a 2018 survey reported by Study Finds, 31% of pet owners claim having a pet gives them a purpose in life.
Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households, or 84.6 million families, own a pet, according to a 2017-2018 American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey. Families also spend a lot of money on the care and upbringing of their pet.
Taking all this into account, along with the fact that approximately fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, it should be no surprise pet custody has become an increasingly hot topic in my practice.
What Florida Law Says
Only one case in Florida has addressed pet visitation, Bennett v Bennett, which bans visitation awards. In Bennett, a husband challenged a Florida trial court’s ruling regarding ownership and custody of the family dog. The court granted ownership of the dog to the husband, but also awarded the wife visitation with the dog every other weekend and every other Christmas.
The appeals court held that as personal property, dogs must be awarded “pursuant to dictates of equitable distribution statute.” The ruling further states, “While several states have given family pets special status within dissolution proceedings, we think such a course is unwise. Determinations as to custody and visitation lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems … Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”
It appears from the discussion in Bennett that Florida judges do not want to be bothered with what is in the best interest or well-being of pets to the extend they do regarding child custody cases when parties cannot agree. Since you will only have a limited amount of time with the judge on this issue, having a well-prepared argument as to why you should have sole ownership over your pet can greatly assist your case.
How to Avoid Pets as Property Treatment
Having an attorney draft a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement regarding pet ownership will likely prevent the judge from treating your pet as marital property. For example, if you had your pet prior to the relationship and your fiancée signs a prenup agreeing to the pet, as your property, then you will likely maintain possession of the pet.
If you did not create an existing pet custody agreement prior to splitting up, have an attorney help you negotiate, mediate, or collaborate a shared pet timesharing plan with the other party. In your discussions and strategies, keep not only your own interests in mind but also what is in the best interest of your pet. For example, since pets thrive on stable and often consistent environments with predictable schedules, it may serve a pet better if you exchange custody monthly rather than on a weekly basis.
Always remember that pet custody should not be a battle about having control over the other party. Pets, like humans, can sense tension and fighting. As a result of potential toil from your divorce, your pet could end up suffering from depression, loss in appetite, or other health issue(s). Continuing giving affection and attention and focusing on what’s best for your pet will help your pet better cope. With emotions running high on so many aspects of your divorce, do not let your pet fall behind in the process. Our office has experience with pets whose loved ones have gone through divorce; let our office handle every aspect of your most protected property –every step of the way.