Kristina Bergsten

How Does Pet Custody Work in New Jersey?

For many families, pets are a large part of their lives and their homes. During the difficult time of divorce, many decisions have to be made. This includes spousal support, division of property, and child support and custody if spouses have children. A lot of couples are also unsure how custody of a pet works in New Jersey.

Pet custody is not a legal term, and there are no laws pertaining to pet custody. Although many people consider their pets family, the law considers them property. For this reason, there is no legal pet custody because pets are included in the division of property. Luckily, in New Jersey, there is legal precedent for the court to consider the emotional ties and non-monetary value of a pet to each spouse.

New Jersey Property Division

New Jersey divides property in a divorce under equitable distribution. If spouses go through the court to determine the separation of assets, the court will look at several aspects of their marriage to determine the division of assets. This division is not 50/50, but the court looks at several factors to determine what is fair to each spouse. Aspects the court looks at include:

  • The income of each spouse and their ability to earn more income in the future
  • How long the couple was married
  • The standard of living established during the marriage
  • Each spouse’s financial and non-economic contributions to the marriage and to marital assets
  • The age and health of each spouse
  • The non-marital assets owned by each spouse

Marital aszets are any assets gained during a marriage, excluding inheritances or gifts given to one spouse. Non-marital, or separate, assets are any assets obtained before or after marriage or labeled in a marital agreement as separate property. Separate assets may become marital assets if significant financial contributions are made using marital assets or by the other spouse.

Factors That May Determine Pet Custody

A pet may be considered a marital asset if the pet was bought during marriage or if marital assets were used to provide care for the animal. The court may determine ownership of a pet based on factors such as:

  • If one spouse owned the pet before marriage
  • If one spouse spends more time with a pet
  • Where children will primarily be living, if the children have an attachment to the pet
  • The spouse who primarily cares for and financially supports the pet
  • If one spouse’s living space is more fit for the pet

If you’re unsure how the court may award pet custody, discuss your case with an animal custody attorney.

New Jersey’s Subjective Value of Pets Case

Financial contributions to the care of a pet, and the pet’s economic value, are the primary ways that courts determine pet ownership during the division of property. In 2009, the Houseman v. Dare case affected how New Jersey courts might view pets. This case recognized that animals have a special subjective value to their owners that cannot always be compensated financially. The couple was provided with alternating possession, somewhat similar to sharing custody of a child. This provides precedent in New Jersey for:

  • Establishing the emotional value of pets
  • Enforcing pet agreements
  • Issuing court orders for shared possession of pets

Determining Pet Custody Through Separation Agreements

Although there have been improvements in New Jersey law for determining pet ownership in court, litigation still doesn’t provide couples with control over the outcome of property division, including who keeps pets.

Negotiation and mediation are often the ideal ways for couples with pets to determine custody. This allows couples to work together on a fair agreement that provides each of them time with their pet, instead of letting the court have the final say in the decision. An animal law attorney is an invaluable asset when negotiating custody of a pet. A separation agreement can address the care of any pets you and your spouse have. It can also determine aspects of pet custody, including:

  • The spouse who is responsible for primary care
  • The non-custodial spouse’s visitation
  • The spouse who makes decisions about veterinary care
  • Care for the pet when the custodial spouse is unable to care for the animal
  • Agreements for feeding schedules and routines
  • How to handle the pet’s remains after death

A pet custody agreement allows you and your spouse to work with each other on an agreement in your pet’s interests, and it lets both of you spend time with the animal. Negotiating an agreement can be easier with a qualified attorney.


Q: What Are the Dog Custody Laws in New Jersey?

A: There are no laws for dog custody because pets are considered property and are included in the division of assets during separation. However, recent court cases have established the emotional value that pets have for their owners that can be financially quantified. This same case also established a precedent for the court assigning shared possession of pets, allowing for alternating care of a pet after separation.

Q: Who Gets the Dog in a Divorce in New Jersey?

A: Ideally, spouses will come to an agreement through mediation and negotiation about the custody and care of a dog or other pet. If the case goes through litigation, the couple doesn’t have as much control over the decisions made for their dog. The court will look at:

  • The spouse who has made the most financial contributions to the dog’s care
  • Whether one spouse owned the dog prior to the relationship and marriage
  • Additional factors like children’s interests

Q: Who Owns a Pet After a Breakup?

A: A pet is considered property, meaning any pets will be part of the division of property in a divorce. For couples who are unmarried and separated, and cannot agree on the ownership of a pet, they will likely have to turn to filing a claim in civil court. Talk with a pet custody attorney to determine your legal options for pet ownership.

Q: Are Animals Considered Property in New Jersey?

A: Yes, animals and pets are considered personal property in New Jersey. This is difficult for many pet owners who consider their pets to be members of their family. Because pets are considered property, owners are liable for damages done by the animals they own. Pets may also be subject to the distribution of assets in divorce.

Work With The Animal Law Firm

We want to help couples determine a fair pet custody agreement. Our unique experience with animal law makes our firm especially qualified to protect animal rights and welfare. Contact us today.

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