Divorce And The Fight Over Beloved Pets
- October 1, 2013
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Fighting over a beloved pet in a divorce, dissolution, or separation can be one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching aspects of the entire process. People fight over a great deal of property, but few items are as vigorously contested as who will possess the loving family pet. Historically, New Jersey courts would treat pets similar to that of personal property and preferred to refrain from making determinations that directed to whom the pet would live with. In 2009, the New Jersey Appellate Division in Houseman v. Dare, re-visited this issue. In Houseman, a Gloucester county Family Division trial judge awarded a litigant $1,500 in compensation for a dog that that opposing party kept in violation of an oral separation agreement that claimed otherwise. At the trial court level, the judge ruled that monetary damages were sufficient to remedy the issue, but the Appellate Division disagreed and expanded that decision to include specific performance of the term of the agreement as an additional potential remedy for situations like this. The Appellate Division’s ruling essentially re-classifies the status of pets in the eyes of the law. In his opinion, the Appellate Division judge compared pets to a family heirloom, in which money alone, could not take the place of the love and sentimental value that people feel towards their cats, dogs and other animal friends. He found that “the remedy of specific performance can be invoked to address a breach of an enforceable agreement when money damages are not adequate to protect the expectation interest of the injured party and an order requiring performance of the contract will not result in inequity to the offending party.” The judge goes on to specify that specific performance is recognized as an appropriate remedy when an agreement concerns possessions of property that induce a “strong sentimental attachment,” because money damages cannot compensate the injured party for the “special subjective benefits he or she derives from possession.” Ultimately, the Appellate Division’s ruling compels future courts to view pets as property of a higher value in divorce, dissolution, and separation proceedings. Further, because pets should be viewed as property akin to sentimental family heirlooms, specific performance is viable remedy for a breach of contract in which one party does not honor a promise to give the other party possession of a pet in a divorce, dissolution, or separation agreement. The ruling in Houseman v. Dare should provide some comfort for people who anticipate that the custody of their beloved pet will be an issue in the dissolution of their relationship. If you are considering divorce or civil union dissolution and have pets you would like to keep, you should consult an experienced family law attorney to protect your rights. For more information on divorce, dissolution separation or other family Law matters in NJ visit HeatherDarlingLawyer.com. This blog is for informational purposes and in no way intended to replace the advice of an attorney.