Audrey and Matt are young and in love. They have just graduated college and adopted Tenley, a one-year-old shelter puppy. Carol and Jack are in their late 50s and are getting married. Carol raises show dogs, and one of her dogs, Buddy, won multiple prestigious awards for agility. Steve and Jill, both in their early 30s, are getting married once Steve finishes his residency. Jill is an avid horsewoman and they plan to buy a property large enough to accommodate a stable. Finally, Larry and Sarah are getting divorced. They agree that the dog, Riley, should follow the children, which they will share custody of equally. However, in addition to the fact that Larry and Sarah both work and need doggy day care, Larry has substantial travel requirements for his job, which necessitates either Sarah taking Riley more than half the time, or expensive boarding expenses.

Deciding at the beginning of a marriage or cohabitation what will happen to a pet in the event of a break up is as, if not more, important than deciding what happens to a house, or bank accounts. Animal lovers will claim their beloved furry friends are irreplaceable, unlike getting a credit for your interest in a house, pension, or a portion of a bank account. Moreover, pet insurance rarely covers all of the medical expenses associated with pets.

Evidence suggests there are psychological, physical, and social benefits in human-pet relationships, especially for dog and cat owners (Hirschman E. C. Consumers and their animal companions. Journal of Consumer Research (1994). Studies also show that length of ownership also has an important influence on pet attachment. Those who owned their pet for more than three years report stronger attachments to their pets (Smolkovic, Fajfar, and Mlinaric, Attachment to pets and interpersonal relationships: Can a four-legged friend replace a two-legged one? Journal of European Psychological Students).

California passed a law earlier this year that allows courts to make custody determinations for animals.

In New Jersey, the courts generally rule that:

  • Pets are still considered personal property, but they have a unique sentimental value that cannot be quantified with a price tag;
  • Pet ownership rulings are based in contract law, not the “best interest of the animal.” (In other words, the Court would uphold a pet custody agreement in an Marital Settlement Agreement);
  • New Jersey Courts can issue shared possession orders for family pets;
  • A hearing may be held to determine which party had the greater attachment to the pet if there is an allegation of an oral agreement. (Houseman v. Dare, 405 N.J. Super. 538 (App.Div. 2009)

In Carol and Jack’s case, as well as Steven and Jill’s, there may be a claim for the effort and funds which were used in the training of the animals, the prize money, the anticipation that the animal will continue to win awards and any breeding fees.

These are just a few issues that come up in family cases which include animals. As with any premarital agreement, or cohabitation agreement, it important to make decisions before there is a problem, or break up. This can avoid heartbreak and significant legal fees down the line. Knowing with certainty what happens is far better than having to place the future of a beloved furry friend in the hands of a stranger.