No matter how attached you are to your pet, Florida courts consider pets to be personal property.
As property pets are subject to the equitable distribution rules that apply to your other personal property.
As with all other property, it you can prove that your pet Fluffy is your separate, non-marital property because you acquired Fluffy before marriage, you then have a strong case for keeping Fluffy. However, as with anything else, it is best if you actually have tangible proof of that premarital acquisition. A copy of the bill of sale, a vet bill, a grocery receipt for pet food, etc., all dated prior to the date of your marriage would be your ideal proof.
Again, as with other property, if Fluffy was given specifically to you,and only you, as a gift by someone other than your spouse, you can make a case that Fluffy should stay with you. However, it may be difficult for you to prove the receipt of such a gift.
You will have a stronger case if Fluffy was bequeathed to you in a will. The will itself should serve as adequate proof that Fluffy is your separate property.
Additionally, if you have children, the Court is likely to leave the family pet with the children under the best interests of the child standard.
There are other considerations to take into account when determining the ultimate disposition of the family pet.
For example, if you have a pet that has value beyond a sentimental one, such as when your pet produces income for you, that pet then also becomes a valuable asset to be included in your divorce pleadings.
You should also be aware that since Florida treats animals as property, there is no custody of pets. Therefore, there is usually a lot of out-of-court negotiations that take place when pet ownership is in dispute during a dissolution of marriage action.
Given the current state of the Florida law, it is best to try to resolve the issue of pet ownership outside the courtroom. Looking forward to your life after your divorce, you should consider whether your post-dissolution arrangement may actually not be conducive to pet ownership. You should honestly assess your projected post-dissolution standard of living and, rather than play a tug-of-war with your spouse, try to objectively determine who best can care for the animal. In making your determination, at the very least,consider your projected post-dissolution resources, living arrangements, and your daily schedule. What will truly be best for your pet? Who is more apt to provide the care your pet deserves?
Otherwise, if you proceed to take the issue of pet ownership to court, you may not be happy with the ultimate decision on the issue.
At the present time, the law does not provide any real guidance to the courts on the issue of “custody” awards of pets. The First District Court in Bennett v. Bennett is one of the few cases which has addressed the legal treatment of family pets in a dissolution of marriage case. In particular, the Bennett court stated that “[w]hile a dog may be considered by many to be a member of the family, under Florida law, animals are considered to be personal property. … There is no authority which provides for a trial court to grant custody or visitation pertaining to personal property.”Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So.2d 109, 110 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995)(internal citations omitted).
The Bennett court further declared that although “several states have given family pets special status within dissolution proceedings … we think such a course is unwise. Determinations as to custody and visitation lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems. Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”Id. at 110(internal citations omitted).
TheBennett court then sent the case back to the trial court to make a decision about the family pet consistent with the pet’s status as personal property. The Bennett court directed the trial court to award the animal pursuant to the dictates of the equitable distribution statute.See id. at 111.
So if you don’t want the court to use the statutory equitable distribution scheme with respect to an award of your pet in your divorce, try to reach an out-of-court agreement with your spouse on what will happen to your pet after the divorce. You can be as creative as you wish when crafting such an agreement with your soon to be ex-spouse. These agreements can provide for “joint custody” of your pet as well as include a plan to share the various expenses that accompany pet ownership.
Just remember, no matter how acrimonious your divorce gets, when it comes to your pet, don’t forget to keep your pet’s best interests in mind. Even if you are ready to fight your spouse for your pet regardless of the cost, stop and think if you are actually the right person for your pet after the divorce. Will you have the time to care for your pet, the money to maintain your pet, and the actual space for your pet? These are all important factors to consider before taking your pet ownership fight to a divorce court.