Who Gets the Family Dog in a Florida Divorce?

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 similar 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 options to accomplish things that our 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 kids, the pet goes to one parent only and that’s all folks. Perhaps one reason for the disparity in treatment is that the courts are overwhelmed enough with children; having courts increase their responsibility to include animals, in a time-sharing context, is not helpful on a state-wide scale.  Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So.2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995).

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 an opportunity to perhaps 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 even 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 timesharing 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.

Stephen Pitre is a collaborative family law attorney in Pensacola, Florida.