Joint Custody over the family dog?

Joint Custody over the family dog?

If we want to know what the laws in our state will look like in the future, many times we only need to look west.  Under a new law enacted in Alaska, judges will take into consideration the well-being of the animal and can assign custody of pets similarly to children in a divorce setting.

So if you are wondering what does a Bedlington Terrier (look it up) have to do with Florida’s collaborative divorce process, the answer is: having the options to accomplish what that our customary laws do not permit.  In Florida, dogs are legally still considered personal property and a court has no authority to grant custody or visitation to pets.  Unlike children, the pet goes to one parent only and that’s all.[1]

The problem with the all-or-nothing legal approach is that while one spouse will be happy with the result, the other will be very disappointed.  And as long as there are minor children involved, it is sometimes an opportunity to seek revenge or express resentment over the loss of a pet through the children.  In a collaborative setting, there is no opportunity to have a winner or loser because the parties are not limited to treating the pet the same as a coffee mug.  While parties undergoing the litigation process are always free to reach agreements on their own, sometimes it is all too tempting to run to the judge and hope they give you what you want if the other side will not agree to your terms.  The my-way-or-the-highway approach to dissolution is what separates collaborative divorce from the litigation approach.  While Florida courts may not enforce any agreement, including making up time sharing for a family pet, the collaborative divorce process structure held to eliminate the small items from causing bigger problems in the years to follow after the lawyers and judges are gone.

[1] Perhaps one reason for the disparity in treatment is that the courts are overwhelmed enough with children; having courts increase their responsibility over animals is not helpful on a state-wide scale.  Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So.2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995).

Stephen A. Pitre is a Shareholder at Clark Partington.  His practice focuses on family law, commercial litigation and appeals.  He believes in the importance of keeping clients informed in real time, of the critical events that drive their case. He has been practicing law for over 18 years and started his career as a law clerk handling admiralty and maritime matters. After serving as an Assistant State Attorney prosecuting major felony offenses for several years, Pitre joined the firm over 10 years ago to focus on civil matters.  He was most recently elected as Vice President of West Florida Collaborative Law, Inc., a non-profit focused on the collaborative family law.

Stephen can be reached at spitre@clarkpartington.com or (850) 434-9200.