For parents, figuring out a child custody and parenting time arrangement is one of the most important duties of divorce. But in many people’s minds, the pets are also members of the family. If you have a dog, cat or other animal that you love, you may be wondering what would happen to your pet if you get divorced.

Traditionally, family courts have treated companion animals as chattel, a legal term for personal property. Pets were handled as part of property division. Judges would not issue a shared “pet custody” or “parenting time” order for pets.

But in recent years, court decisions around the country have begun to recognize that pets are more than objects. A ruling by the New Jersey Appellate Division provided guidance on how to deal with family court disagreements over animals.

Pets have a ‘special subjective value’ to their owners

In that case, a longtime engaged couple that was living together bought a dog. The couple broke up, agreeing that the woman would keep the dog, though she let the man take the dog for visits. The man refused to draw up a written agreement about the arrangement but told his ex-fiancée that she could trust him not to take away the dog. The woman left the dog with her ex to go on vacation. When she returned home, the man refused to return the dog.

The woman sued to regain possession of the dog. The judge ruled that the man owed her $1500 compensation for the animal, but the woman appealed. The Appellate Division ruled that the compensation was not a sufficient remedy because the dog had “special subjective value” to the woman, such as someone might have for a family heirloom. The ruling suggested that in cases like this, the court must determine which party has a “sincere” desire to continue seeing the pet and whether one of the parties is only pretending to do so out of “greed, ill-will or other sentiment unworthy of protection.”

Find out how to protect your pets in divorce

Like most divorce matters, the vast majority of divorcing pet owners settle their differences over the pets out of court. But it is interesting to know that New Jersey divorce law treats pets as something more than a dining room set or a sports car. Your divorce attorney will help you understand the strategy involved in getting a fair deal in your divorce.