With all the different personal and financial issues that must be addressed during the divorce process, sometimes family pets can be an afterthought. When a spouse comes into a relationship with a pet, it can be somewhat straightforward as to who will maintain possession over the pet following the end of the relationship; however, when a pet is acquired during a marriage, or if the other spouse develops a strong relationship with the other party’s pet, many times it can become very difficult to determine how to “divide” a pet.
Unfortunately, in many states, including Florida, the courts do not have a lot of guidance in the statutes for these pet-related divorce issues and often judges are left determining the value and worth of pets just as they would any other type of property, which, for some pet owners, can have tragically sad results.
Under current Florida law, a pet is considered the same as any other property, subject to “equitable distribution” as with all other marital property jointly owned by the parties. As any animal lover can imagine, this has the potential to lead to hotly contested disputes between two parties who both want exclusive possession of a family pet. Unlike children, however, where the Court has a legal obligation to determine what level of access and timesharing between children and their parents would be in the child’s best interests, there are no such considerations that must be made when it comes to pets.
Now Florida judges may have the discretion to award joint ownership of a family pet, but nothing in the law requires the Court to do so, nor are there any provisions in Florida law that would provide guidance for the courts on how to properly, and uniformly, address issues related to family pets. Without any specificity in the current law, judicial decisions on these issues can vary wildly from courtroom to courtroom, depending on the individual thoughts and preferences of each judge, who may or may not be animal lovers themselves.
However, that could be changing in the future if Florida were to follow the lead of one of our sister states. In a first of its kind law in the nation, the State of Alaska has just passed a bill that would force courts to consider the well-being of animals when deciding placement issues, and, in fact, has authorized courts to award joint custody of pets in domestic-related cases. Under the law, judges are permitted to treat pets like children, and like children, if the parents cannot decide on a reasonable timesharing and contact schedule, then the Judge is required to make such decisions related to a family pet by using objective criteria, similar to those considerations used in child timesharing decisions.
These considerations may include such factors as who has had more responsibility over the pet historically, who has spent more time with the pet on a regular basis, and who may be better suited to care for and provide for the pet, both financially, and even emotionally. After the consideration of the evidence, Alaskan courts will now have statutory authority to award sole or joint custody of family pets, including the establishment of regular timesharing schedules and the sharing of pet-related expenses.
Another important part of the Alaskan bill, and one that also deserves consideration here in Florida, is that it provides additional protections to family pets during domestic violence cases by permitting judges to include pets in domestic violence protection orders. The law also requires the owners of pets seized in animal cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their care and shelter. What this means for Alaskan victims of domestic violence is an added level of comfort in knowing that their pets can be as protected, by order of the Court, as much as they are. For Alaskan tax payers, it would ensure that costs are recouped for the sheltering and care of animals abused or neglected by their owners.