Woman with dog after divorce

Property disputes in divorce are nothing new. Spouses fight over who gets the house, the retirement benefits, valuable works of art, and more. But one asset you may not have considered is the family pet. That’s right: in Florida, pets are considered property, which means only one spouse will end up with Fido in your divorce settlement.

If a divorce is in your future, you probably have a lot of questions. Let Orlando Family Team help answer them. We will review your case and then get to work fighting for you.

Misconceptions About Pets And Divorce

Most people are broadly familiar with custody and visitation rules that apply to children. There’s a misconception among some Floridians, however, that courts use these guidelines to determine custody of a dog, cat, or other family pet. The truth is, the court will not award custody or visitation rights over a pet. There is no such thing as a “best interests of the pet” standard, the way there is for a child. Rather, the court will award ownership of the pet, since it’s considered property.

This goes back to the 1990s, in a family law case named Bennett v. Bennett. The divorcing spouses couldn’t agree who should get the dog, so the trial court awarded custody to the husband and visitation to the wife (similar to how child custody is determined).

The problem was that the parties kept filing motions to modify their custody and visitation arrangements. The issue eventually worked its way to the appellate court. Noting the number of child custody cases overwhelming the courts, the appellate judges disallowed trial courts to subject pets to custody-like decisions. As a result, they’re considered property.

The idea of your pet being a piece of property, treated no differently than a couch, may seem startling. Your dog or cat is no doubt like a family member to you. But since pets are considered property, that means Florida’s divorce laws governing the division of marital property will apply. Those rules are known as equitable distribution, and if you have concerns over who gets the family pet, it’s important to understand them.

An Overview of Florida’s Equitable Distribution Rules

The division of marital property – sometimes called the marital estate – is subject to an extensive process called equitable distribution. “Equitable” means fair, not necessarily equal. Divorcing couples in Florida who cannot resolve their differences over the marital estate must have the judge decide for them. To arrive at the most equitable outcome for both spouses, the judge will consider a number of criteria.

These criteria are codified in Florida’s domestic statutes. Not all of them are relevant to pets, but depending on the circumstances, some of them can be used in your favor. Equitable distribution is a fact-intensive process, meaning that the outcome depends heavily on the particular details of your case. Concerning a family pet, these are some facts that a court may look at, in light of the equitable distribution criteria, to determine who is awarded ownership:

  • Who spent the most time or effort taking care of the pet?
  • Who took the pet to veterinarian appointments or otherwise provided for its needs?
  • Is the spouse requesting the pet financially able to take care of it?
  • Is the spouse requesting the pet in good enough health to take care of it?
  • How much is the pet worth?

What if I owned my pets before the marriage and divorce?

As mentioned above, equitable distribution is only concerned with marital property. Separate property is generally excluded from the process. Therefore, if you adopted or purchased the dog or other pet before you got married, the court will most likely consider it separate property. That means it won’t be included in equitable distribution, and you will get to keep it.

What are the risks of having the court decide?

Courts have to decide how to divide marital property if the spouses cannot. As with any equitable distribution trial, a major risk you face is that the judge won’t fully understand how important your pet is to you. The judge may not even like pets, which could make it more difficult for you to win possession.

There’s a limited amount of time to conduct your equitable distribution trial. Many divorces are working their way through the courts, so judges have to be expeditious with the resources they have. And remember, besides your pet, you have numerous other assets that need to be divided. All this is to say that with such time constraints, you’re going to need a compelling argument for why you – not your spouse – should get to keep the family pet.

Are there any other options for settling ownership of the family pet?

Given the risks and limitations of going to court to settle your marital estate, you should consider an out of court option like mediation. Your case will most likely be referred to mediation anyway, so it’s important for you to speak with an experienced Florida divorce attorney about it.

In mediation, a third-party neutral known as a mediator helps the divorcing spouses resolve their disagreements over equitable distribution, along with other issues like child custody and alimony. The mediator doesn’t decide who gets what but instead facilitates negotiations to reach a mutually agreeable outcome. If you want to keep the family dog, you should be willing to give up some other assets in return.

Trust Orlando Family Team for All of Your Divorce Needs

Divorce is never the intended outcome of a marriage. But the process doesn’t have to be as stressful and complicated as you might think. If you have a concern about who gets the family pet, or any other issue arising out of your marriage, let Orlando Family Team help. We have the experience it takes to get the best results for you. Reach out to us today.