Divorce and the Family Pet by Beth T. Vogelsang, Esq.

Late last year, a Florida appeals court addressed the emotional attachment of family pets and its impact on a divorce. To understand this issue, Beth Vogelsang, a board-certified expert in divorce, marital and family law in Naples, provides some background and insight.

In 2020, Beth’s family lost their sweet little Puggle named Savannah to old age. The timing was terrible, right at the start of the pandemic. They had adopted Savannah sixteen years ago to help their youngest child adjust when his older siblings headed off to college.

A few years later, Beth and her husband became empty nesters after their youngest child left for college too. Savannah was a
loving companion, filling the silence of their home with happy sounds and loving affection. When their children returned home
for visits from college, Savannah excitedly greeted them as if they had never left.

The thought that if Beth’s husband and she had divorced during that time, Savannah would have been considered “property” to be
divided like silverware and a dining room table is unthinkable. Savannah was a member of their family. They couldn’t imagine
being separated from Savannah.

Florida law and the family pet
Although pets are still considered “property” in Florida divorce cases, there is a change in the air as to what factors should be considered in deciding which spouse is awarded ownership of a family pet. Florida courts are still not authorized to give “custody” of a pet to one party, or visitation rights to the other party. But a court is not limited from considering fair and equitable factors when deciding who should get the family pet.

In a recent Second District Court of Appeal opinion, the court recognized the emotional attachment people have to family pets, and acknowledged that this factor should be considered in determining which party is awarded the family pet. Harby v. Harby (Fla. 2nd DCA 11/18/2021).

Beth shares that “the court noted that in several states pets have a special property status. Although Florida is not one of those states, the 2nd District held that a trial court may consider a party’s sentimental interest in the property, such as the ordinary attachment to a pet, whether the pet is a service animal to one of the parties, whose possession the pet was in during the proceedings and other factors of section 61.075. See § 61.075(1)(j) (permitting the trial court to consider ‘[a]ny other factors necessary to do equity and justice between the parties’). This decision opens the door in divorce litigation to present evidence to permit a family’s preference.”

Bottom Line
The Harby decision leaves clear that although a pet may be mere property, a family pet should not be treated the same as a
crockpot in divorce.

Beth Vogelsang is a Naples, Florida, resident. She is Florida Bar Board Certified Divorce, Marital and Family Law attorney and stockholder at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt, P.A. In 2021, Florida Super Lawyers magazine has named her one of the “Top 50 Women Attorneys” in the entire state!

Beth may be reached at  beth.vogelsang@henlaw.com or by phone at 239-344-1244.

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