The legal owner is considered to be the person whose name is on the pet’s adoption certificate or sales contract, and who pays the veterinary and other bills for the pet. In the eyes of the law, it is of no concern whether the legal owner is the pet’s main caregiver or has any emotional attachment to the pet.
This may change, however. Last month a New Jersey appeals court set a state precedent by ruling that judges can decide who gets custody of pets based on their sentimental value rather than who legally owns them. Based on this ruling, Superior Court Judge John Tomasello allowed a formerly engaged couple, Eric Dare and Doreen Houseman, to share joint custody of their Pug, Dexter.
When the couple broke off their engagement in 2006, they agreed to share custody of Dexter. But after Houseman started seeing someone else – who happened to be a friend of her ex-fiancé – Dare put a halt to Dexter’s visits with her. Houseman went to court.
Judge Tomasello originally ruled in 2007 that Dare could keep Dexter and pay Houseman $1,500, the purebred dog’s purchase price. His decision was based on the fact that since Dare had bought the pug and paid its veterinary and other bills, he was Dexter’s legal owner. “Dogs are chairs,” Tomasello said at the time. “They’re furniture; they’re automobiles; they’re pensions. They’re not kids.”
Houseman was not pleased. A long legal battle ensued that eventually cost the couple $40,000 in attorneys’ fees.
In March 2009, Houseman filed a successful appeal. Three of the appeals judges disagreed with Tomasello’s ruling, saying he “should not have treated Dexter like another piece of furniture” and instead should have considered the subjective value of the dog, which they said was similar to “heirlooms, family treasures, and works of art.”
According to Philly.com, Houseman’s attorney, Gina Calogero, considered this a landmark decision on pet custody, which she called an emerging field. She said this was the first family law decision in New Jersey to recognize a special value in animals. On the other hand, Dare’s attorney, James M. Carter, said he thought judges had better things to do than decide pet custody cases. “As far as the legal community goes, many attorneys realize this would be the first step down a slippery slope,” he said.
The case was returned to Tomasello, who made a new ruling in September that Houseman and Dare would each get custody of Dexter for five-week periods. After issuing the order, Tomasello said Dexter “might be cute and furry, but he’s still property. He’s no more than that.”
“The case is a mixed blessing,” Matthew Liebman, staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, wrote in his blog. “On the one hand, the court acknowledged the significant bond that guardians have with their companion animals…At the same time, however, the court refused to adopt the ‘best interests of the animal’ standard.” The standard specifies that companion animals should be treated as “sentient beings with interests that are independent of those of their owners.”
Prior to this case, any pet custody agreement that a couple had put in writing could not be considered by the court in divorce settlements. So if the ex-husband or ex-wife did not abide by the agreement, the court could not do anything about it. But by ordering the agreement between Houseman and Dare and thereby making it enforceable by the court, Judge Tomasello set a precedent for allowing courts enforcement power over pet custody agreements.
It remains to be seen if other states will follow New Jersey’s lead. In the meantime, if you are in a relationship and want to prevent a long court battle and the possibility of losing your pet, make sure you have a custody agreement in writing.
For more information about pet custody laws and to find out what you can do to change them, visit these websites:
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Images from msnbc.com and Zoomar