Child custody is commonly the most important issue to a parent going through a divorce. However, when parties do not have children, and are going through a divorce (or break-up, if never married), what do they consider the most important issue to resolve?
Often, a beloved animal is considered part of the family, and a divorce or break-up results in questions about who gets to continue enjoying time with the pets. Courts, and the laws around the country, often consider pets to be property. New Jersey is not much different. Because pets are considered property, a pet’s worth may be determined by their market value. If you are reading this article, I doubt you feel this is adequate.
Recently, New Jersey courts have taken a step in a different direction with its decision in Houseman v. Dare.
Doreen Houseman and Eric Dare were an engaged couple with a dog they jointly owned and cared for, Dexter. When Houseman and Dare decided to separate and end their engagement, Houseman left their joint home and brought along Dexter. However, the parties had an oral agreement that Dare would be entitled to spend periods of time with Dexter, and after which, he would return the pet to Houseman.
The former couple utilized this arrangement for several years, and both parties consistently spent time with Dexter. Under this arrangement, Houseman went on vacation in February 2007 and left Dexter with Dare. However, upon her return, Dare refused to return Dexter to Houseman. Houseman subsequently sued Dare for enforcement of their "shared custody" agreement.
The Trial Court held in favor of Dare, holding that Dexter had a value of $1,500 (what the parties paid for the dog years earlier), and that because Dexter was now in Dare’s possession, he would have to pay Houseman $1,500 for the dog.
Houseman appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the Trial Court’s decision. The Appellate Division held that pets were in an extraordinary class of property with "special subjective value", of which monetary compensation may not be adequate.
The case was then remanded to the Trial Court, where the judge reversed his initial decision and granted the parties, for all intents and purposes, a shared custody and parenting arrangement, which provided specific periods that Dexter would be in both parties’ care. In making this decision, the judge took into consideration both Houseman and Dare’s relationships with Dexter, and the way they shared caring for the dog during their previous relationship. Both parties equally cared for the dog, and, accordingly, they both were entitled to spend time with him.
So, while dogs and other pets are still considered property, in light of the Houseman case, it seems apparent that New Jersey at least recognizes the special value pets have to their owners that money cannot replace, unlike a coffee table, car, or home.