Any pet owner will tell you that his/her cat or dog is much more than a piece of property; it is a member of the family. However, until recently, New Jersey family courts did not share that sentiment. Historically, New Jersey family courts have put pets and personal property on the same level for purposes of dividing assets during divorce negotiations. However, following a recent landmark appellate decision acknowledging that pets have a certain “subjective value” that exceeds their replacement value, one Gloucester County Superior Court judge granted ex-fiancés joint possession of their pet pug, placing the puppy in a category more akin to family than furniture.
In the case of Houseman v. Dare, Gloucester County Superior Court Judge John Tomasello allowed a formerly engaged couple to spend alternating, five-week stretches with Dexter, a pet pug that they purchased during their relationship. Judge Tomasello further held that whichever party has the dog at a given time will be responsible for all expenses, including veterinarian bills, incurred while in possession of Dexter. Judge Tomasello deemed this arrangement as joint possession, but he was careful to point out that this nomenclature should not be confused with joint custody.
However one wishes to label the arrangement assigned by Judge Tomasello in Houseman v. Dare, his decision is a positive one for divorcing New Jersey couples who cannot agree as to who will retain possession of their beloved pet post-divorce. In light of Judge Tomasello’s decision and the Appellate Division’s acknowledgment that the value of a beloved pet’s companionship is not easily determined or divided, it appears that Superior Court judges may be more willing in the future to fashion joint possession arrangements for divorcing pet owners – a significantly more palatable result for most pet owners than the added loss of companionship with one’s pet.
If you and your former significant other cannot agree on the possession of a pet obtained during the course of your relationship, consider contacting a divorce lawyer to ascertain the current status of this evolving category of case law.
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