Most pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family. When a divorce occurs, many times the divorcing couple fights for custody of the family pets, even if they can agree on everything else. In 1993, a Jacksonville couple, Ronald and Kathryn Bennett, divorced and fought for custody of their dog, Roddy. In the divorce trial, the trial court awarded custody of Roddy to Ronald Bennett and gave Kathryn Bennett visitation rights to Roddy. The ruling was appealed and, in Bennett v. Bennett 655 So.2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995), the First District Court of Appeals handed down its landmark decision.
The appeals court ruled that under Florida law, animals are considered to be personal property. The Court of Appeal found that the trial court lacked authority to order visitation with personal property and therefore ordered the trial court to award Roddy as personal property to either Ronald or Kathryn. The court explained its reasoning by stating “determinations as to custody and visitation [of pets] lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems (as evidenced by the proceedings in the instant case). Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals. “
What does this mean? Well, in a nutshell, a judge must give the family pet to one or the other of the divorcing party. The court cannot award visitation rights for the party who is not awarded the pet. In short, pets are property, just like the car, the couch and the big screen TV and must be given to one party pursuant to Florida’s Equitable Distribution statute. A judge cannot give the other “parent” timesharing or visitation.
Andrew G. Storie is a family law and divorce attorney who serves Orlando and all of Central Florida. For more information please call 407-838-0887 or visit www.storielaw.com