Thursday, March 19, 2009

When the Relationship Ends, What Happens to the Dog?

In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, courts in the past expressed reluctance to address custody issues regarding family pets. In fact, in Pennsylvania, courts specifically decline to enforce a custody arrangement regarding a pet, even if it is a result of an agreement between the parties. Consequently, legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania so that the enforcement of pet custody orders becomes part of the statutes. You can click here to read a previous blog on this subject.

This month, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court faced a case where a girlfriend and boyfriend broke up yet disputed ownership of the dog. This case came from Gloucester County, New Jersey and, on the appeal, the Animal Legal Defense Fund as well as Lawyers in Defense of Animals wrote amicus curiae briefs (friend of the court briefs expressing opinions of a particular party or interest group). According to the court’s Opinion both of these groups asked the court to adopt some type of a rule that would require consideration of the best interests of the dog. In a review of the Opinion, the court apparently declined to take this route.

In this case, the girlfriend and boyfriend had a 13 year relationship in which they had purchased a house together as well as a dog. When boyfriend decided to end his relationship with girlfriend, they came to an agreement wherein boyfriend would keep the house and girlfriend would keep the dog and half the value of the house. The parties agreed that the dog was worth $1,500 as that is what they had paid in 2003 for this dog with a pedigree, registered with the American Kennel Club.

Subsequent to their breakup, girlfriend allowed boyfriend to occasionally take the dog for visits. Unfortunately, after one of these visits, he refused to return the dog.

Girlfriend sued for specific possession of the parties’ oral agreement and requested that the dog be immediately returned to her. However, the trial court found that a dog is personal property that lacks a unique value that is essential in order for a court to award specific performance. Accordingly, at the trial court level, boyfriend was ordered to pay girlfriend $1,500, the amount that they had agreed they had paid for the dog.

Girlfriend appealed and noted that the dog had a subjective value as well as an intrinsic monetary value and she had always attempted to enforce her right of possession of the dog. She also noted that boyfriend took an action specifically adverse to her ability to enjoy her right to the dog.

After reviewing the case law on the subject, as well as considering the unique qualities of the dog and his relationship to girlfriend, the Superior Court remanded the case, directing the trial court that their conclusion that specific performance was not an appropriate remedy was erroneous. The court noted that allowing boyfriend to keep the dog rewarded him for contemptuous behavior.

Accordingly, in this case, the court found that a family pet had specific and unique value that could not necessarily be assigned a price tag. However, fighting over a dog, to the point where it goes to the Appellate Court, could cost thousands of dollars. During a breakup, whether during a marriage or after a romantic relationship, think carefully about how family pets will be divided, realizing that a disagreement that is brought to court can be cost prohibitive.


Stephen said...

If my gay homosexual life partner leaves, no way in hell is he taking the dog.

Daddy said...

Word! I'm not letting my lady (or more accurately, my dude) take away my pooch! She can sue me, just like the lady you wrote about.