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Pet Custody in Divorce and Separation: Who Gets Fido?

By Neetal Parekh | Last updated on

A New Jersey ex-couple's fight for their dog might be a game-changer for state pet custody law.

Like a cars, books, and lawnmowers, animals are currently treated as property under the law.  So, when the door closed on the engagement of a New Jersey couple in 2006, their vie for possession of their pet pug, Dexter, was viewed by the deciding court as a straightforward assignment of possession. The pug was pegged to go to former fiancé Eric Dare and his former-blushing counterpart, Doreen Houseman, awarded $1500--the cost of the animal.  However, after $40,000 and three years of proceedings, the couple's  continued fight for Dexter found its way to appeals' court.

And it was there that history was made.

The appellate court overruled the lower court's decision this past March.  Three appellate judges disagreed with court's decision, finding that the pet should not have been treated "like another piece of furniture", but rather, that the court should have considered the subjective value of animal to the ex-couple.

The appeal was bolstered with the support of two animal rights' organizations, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Lawyers In Defense of Animals, joining the case. The appeal called for courts to consider the best interest of the animal involved in a pet custody hearing, as was done when considering placement of the dogs involved in the much-publicized dog-fighting case brought against NFL-star Michael Vick.  The panel did not go so far as to require the judge to consider the best interest of the pooch, but it did bump the case back to the original court for re-trial and consideration of the pet as joint property.

In last week's hearing on the case the judge revised his original holding, finding that the six-year old pug is actually joint property of the couple because both individuals lived together and cared for the animal.  He called for briefs from the couple to hear ideas on how they suggest Dexter's custody should be decided.

New Jersey is the not the first state to delve deeper than simple property law in deciding custody of household pets.  Similar questions have been raised in California, Florida, and Pennsylvania.  And though there are no definitive results or trends, the issue is gaining judicial attention and is becoming ripe for clarified precedence.


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