Do the courts see Fido as "part of the family"?
It is a common practice in plenty of families to call pets "one of the children". Indeed, plenty of pets are pampered and treated as such. This level of fondness and affection may leave one wondering how pets are treated from a legal perspective in divorce.
Namely, can courts order custody and timesharing of pets or does Florida treat pets as marital property?
Florida Law on Pets in a Divorce
Florida case law clearly demonstrates that pets are treated as marital property, based on the 1995 case of Bennett v. Bennett. In the case, the court noted Florida courts were already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation and support matters relating to children. Based on these realities, the Florida court felt it unwise to undertake the same responsibilities for pets.
The appellate court in Bennett ultimately remanded the case back to the trial court, instructing the trial court to treat the dog in question as personal property that must be distributed based on Florida's equitable distribution statute.
The takeaway, then, is that Florida treats pets as personal property, subjecting pets to the state's equitable distribution laws just like any other form of marital property.
Since a Florida court will not create a timeshare or custody arrangements for a family pet, it is in a couple's best interests to come to their own agreement on pet sharing whenever possible. A divorcing couple is free to enter into a negotiated settlement that stipulates the rights of each party when it comes to pet sharing, visitation and the like. Without such an agreement, the question of who gets the dog or cat will be decided by the court.
Interestingly, however, this is not to say that there are no states that allow pet sharing to be treated as a custody issue. Alaska was the first state in the nation to grant joint custody of pets in a 2017 divorce proceeding. Alaska ultimately decided that courts may award custody based on what is best for the animal in question, not its human owners.
While this news is welcome news for some animal law experts and many who view pets as family members, Florida pet owners have no such legal option as of yet. Still, it is worth watching to see whether the Alaska decision could become part of a larger national trend.
If you have questions regarding pets in Florida divorce, or are unaware as to the terms and conditions in, talk to, and retain, a family law attorney who can help. Contact Damien McKinney of The McKinney Law Group to discuss your case further. He can be reached by phone at 813-428-3400 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org