Not-So-Pet-Friendly: What Happens to My Pet When My Spouse and I Split up?
An issue that comes up frequently in Family law is timesharing (what we used to call “joint custody”) with pets. The resolution to that issue is often unsatisfactory to the people involved.
Florida courts consider pets as personal property, and do not create timesharing arrangements for pets so that each “parent” will still get to see the pet when the legal proceedings are over. As personal property, pets are subject to equitable distribution, just like the good china and the fishing poles. When pets have a significant economic value – show dogs, or purebreds, for example—the Court assigns the pet a dollar value and the pet is awarded to one party; the other party gets something of equivalent value in return. The pet’s future living arrangements may hinge on something as simple as which party has the pet when the couple splits up.
For people whose pets have become surrogate children (“my four-legged child” or “my fur-baby”), this result seems particularly harsh. Pet owners are often willing to go to great lengths for their pets, but spending thousands of dollars fighting over their beloved Fido or Fifi is often just not feasible. Even when a couple successfully negotiates a “pet parenting plan,” where they will alternate weeks with a pet and share the expenses, the Family Court does not have the ability to enforce this agreement if one party dishonors it. This is because the Court’s jurisdiction over personal property ends when the Final Judgment is entered.
The only bit of case law in Florida that addresses this issue is now 22 years old. In refusing to afford pets a status akin to that of children, it focuses on issues like the increased burden on a system already struggling to keep up with parents’ disagreements over the best interests of their human children—including a whole division just trying to stay on top of child support. The appellate court concluded that allowing the pet timesharing order to stand would lead to a variety of enforcement problems; unwritten is the notion that it would also open the floodgates to further litigation, straining the already swamped Family Court system.
However, in the 22 years since that one Florida opinion was issued, other states have taken an approach to post-dissolution pet ownership that recognizes that an animal is not, in actuality, the same as a lamp – even if the animal and the lamp have the same fair market value. Social media shows us more stories of animals who saved their family from a fire or other danger, elevating their status to “family hero.” The complex relationship between pets and people has been studied more, leading to increased use of animals in hospitals and nursing homes, to motivate, comfort –and detect medical problems.
The next few years may well bring a change in the way the Family Court deals with animals, based on trends being seen around the country. For that to happen, a pet “parent” is going to have to be prepared to spend as much money fighting for a pet as they would fighting for their own offspring.