From time to time, we have written regarding pet custody, though there is very little case law on the issue. Historically, pets were treated as chattel (property) and courts did not enter custody and visitation orders for animals. Houseman v. Dare was a 2009 precedential opinion that we blogged on that applied contract principles to the issue (there was an oral agreement that one party would take possession of a dog that the Appellate Division ultimately upheld. On remand (which we also blogged about) the trial court found that the court would spend equal time with each party -though that seemingly disregarded the Appellate Division decision.
By and large, the cases typically treat pets as property and that is what happened again in the unreported (non-precedential) case of Quintanilla-Lowry v. Lowry decided on March 30, 2023.
For purposes of this discussion, the details of this case are not particularly relevant other than this was a very short marriage and the cats were owned by the wife prior to the marriage. The husband argued that the wife abandoned the cats when she fled the home with her children.
The trial court rejected the husband’s argument and awarded the cats to the wife because they were her premarital asset. The Appellate Division affirmed, simply noting that:
We also see no error in the trial court’s decision to distribute the cats to Quintanilla-Lowry. “Any property owned by a husband or wife at the time of marriage will remain the separate property of such spouse and in the event of divorce will be considered an immune asset and not eligible for distribution.” Valentino v. Valentino, 309 N.J. Super. 334, 338 (App. Div. 1998). Cats, although beloved pets to whom people can become emotionally attached, are under the law, the property of the person who owns them. Craig offered no convincing evidence that the trial court should have distributed Quintanilla-Lowry’s cats to him.
Pets often create emotional issues in cases. One wonders whether that was the case here. Either way, the easiest answer was the simple answer and the ruling of the court.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Department of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or email@example.com.