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What Do You Mean I Am Just a Dog?

For many of us, our pets are our family. We treat them just like our children. Our clients are always surprised when they find out that their fur babies are not going to be treated as people or children in their divorce proceeding. What most people do not realize is that pets are considered personal property, or chattels, and are awarded to one party in the equitable distribution scheme, the same way as your chairs or appliances. Unlike child custody battles, determination of who gets the pet is very rarely based on the best interest of the pet or even the proclaimed owner. Typically, the person in the relationship that can prove the strongest ownership rights is the person that will win "custody" of the pet. Ownership rights are based on a number of factors such as: showing proof of who brought the pet into the relationship, who pays for veterinary care, who pays for the majority of pet expenses, whose name the pet is registered in, and who spends the most time with the pet.

Under Florida law, the courts require an equitable, or fair, division of property between spouses. Property owned before the marriage is excluded from the equitable division. Therefore, if you owned your pet prior to the marriage you will be entitled to keep him/her. However, pets acquired during the marriage are subject to the equitable distribution scheme.

In the Florida case of Bennett v. Bennett, the husband appealed the judgment of dissolution of marriage which awarded the wife custody of the parties' dog, "Roddy". 655 So. 2d 109 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1995). The court held that "as personal property [the] dog must be awarded pursuant to dictates of equitable distribution statute." Id. at 110. The court went on further, stating that "there is no authority which provides for a trail court to grant custody or visitation pertaining to personal property." Id. It reasoned that determinations as to custody and visitation leads to continuing enforcement and supervision problems such as those that appear in child visitation cases and the Court simply cannot undertake the same responsibility to animals as they do for children. Id.

Traditionally, animals have always been viewed as property. In more recent years, animal advocates and fur parents alike have advocated to the court for treatment of pets more as children, rather than property. Some jurisdictions have begun to make headway in this area but, unfortunately, under Florida law, precedent still controls.

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