A frequent and sometimes tearful question that can arise in a divorce case is “How will Florida law treat my dog, cat or other four-legged friend?” We often think of our companion animals as members of the family. Indeed, many people actually prefer their dogs and cats to their soon-to-be departing spouse or even a child or two. Florida law provides very detailed statutory structures for computing alimony, financial support, child support, timesharing with the children, criteria for co-parent decision-making for children’s issues, and many other related matters. However, the answer to this question can be found in the concept known under Florida law as ‘equitable distribution.’
Florida divorce statutes require that the parties and, if negotiations are unsuccessful, the court to determine what is marital and non-marital property. Very briefly, non-marital property are assets and liabilities that are outside the marriage (such as inheritances) and not subject to valuation and distribution in the divorce proceeding. Marital property are assets and liabilities that are created during the marriage and are subject to valuation and distribution in the divorce proceeding. This is true irrespective of which party’s name is on the title to the asset or whose name is on the debt, and is a subject outside the scope of this particular blog.
When one considers the issue of equitable distribution, the assets and liabilities that quickly come to mind are, on the asset side, houses, furniture, automobiles, stock and bank accounts, and retirement plans. On the liability side are credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, secured and unsecured debts to family members and third parties. But for reasons that pre-date the founding of the United States, the ancient common law and now current Florida law treat dogs, cats, horses, livestock and companion animals as ‘chattel’, or simple personal property. While some divorce cases have found one party or another seeking ‘custody rights’ or ‘visitation rights’ with the family dog or cat, the law does not recognize these animals as family members like children, and cannot confer any of these rights in a divorce case. The court can equitably distribute these animals to one party or the other, off-setting the dollar value of these animals against the distribution of other assets and debts in the divorce case. In short, companion animals are akin to tables and chairs.
Is there a better and more humane way to solve the issue of companion animals in a divorce case? Yes, there is an excellent alternative to leaving this issue to a judge: A settlement agreement made by the parties themselves. Utilizing an alternative dispute resolution process – like mediation, collaborative family law or party-to-party negotiation (directly or with the help of legal counsel) – the parties can create an agreement or include in a more global settlement agreement a provision for the post-divorce care of companion animals. While not ‘custody’ or ‘visitation’ in the traditional sense, the parties can agree to divide and share time with the animals, agree on how to provide and pay for veterinary care, and the like. And these agreements can be enforced by the court in the same manner as other valid agreements made in the course of resolving the divorce case.
So if your companion animals are an issue in your divorce case, please discuss this with your experienced and knowledgeable family law attorney as soon as possible and see if it can be amicably settled even before the rest of the case progresses. Kids, cats and dogs are inseparable and belong with each other even after the parents’ divorce.