Who Gets the Dog?

Recently I was in a mediation with my client.  It was getting late, we were getting very close to settling everything, and everyone was exhausted.  We were just about to wrap up the final loose ends when my client blurted out “I want the dogs.”  There had been zero discussion about the dogs in the previous 10 hours of mediation.  I could see the frustration on the mediator’s faceas she thought her next caucus with the other side would be the last and we would be finalizing the settlement agreement for execution.  It did not work out that way.  It took quite a few more hours of agonizing, emotionally charged, and, quite frankly, heart breaking negotiations.

Our furry friends are so important to us.  However, in Florida, as in many other states, pets are considered mere chattel and not a part of the family that would raise questions about who gets custody of them after a divorce.  One person will be awarded the pet just like a piece of furniture, a car, or other personal property.  While this may seem impersonal given the emotional attachment many people have to their pets, it provides a framework for resolving disputes over pet custody in a divorce.

When determining who gets custody of a pet in a divorce, Florida courts may consider several factors, including:

  • Identifying the Primary Caregiver: Courts may consider which spouse primarily cared for the pet during the marriage, including responsibilities such as feeding, grooming, and veterinary care.
  • Level of Emotional Attachment: Courts may take into account the emotional bond between each spouse and the pet, as well as any special needs or considerations related to the pet’s well-being.

Thankfully, there are options couples going through a divorce in Florida when attempting to resolve disputes over pet custody:

  1. Negotiation and settlement: Spouses can negotiate a mutually agreeable arrangement for sharing custody of the pet, taking into account each party’s ability to care for the pet and their respective living situations. NOTE the Court cannot order this option so the couple must agree to it.
  2. Court Intervention: If spouses are unable to reach an agreement on pet custody, they may ask the court to intervene and make a decision. In such cases, the court will consider the factors mentioned earlier and render a judgment awarding the pet to one or the other spouse.

In conclusion, the emotional stakes in pet custody disputes during divorce proceedings cannot be understated. The unexpected turn in my recent mediation, where a seemingly settled negotiation was disrupted by a heartfelt plea for the dogs, exemplifies this complex issue. Despite pets being viewed as property under the law, the depth of attachment and care they inspire in families necessitates careful consideration. In Florida, as in many states, courts may evaluate factors such as primary caregiving and emotional bonds when determining custody. Fortunately, couples have avenues for resolution, from amicable negotiations to court intervention if needed. While the legal framework may appear rigid, these options aim to provide a path forward that respects both the law and the profound relationships we share with our cherished companions. Ultimately, navigating pet custody requires sensitivity, compromise, and a recognition of the unique role pets play within our families.