N.J. Courts Going to the Dogs

A New Jersey woman wants her ex-fiancé to hand over their dog to her. She may have changed New Jersey law in the process, reports the Inquirer’s Jan Hefler.

Doreen Houseman and her fiancé broke up. A loss for both, no matter how it happened, and the question remains: Who gets the comfort of the dog?

This question may be changing New Jersey law.

After a congenial agreement to share custody of Dexter, the couple’s dog, soured when Houseman started dating again after the break-up, her ex-fiancé Eric Dare, a Williamstown police officer, refused to let her see the dog.

So Houseman brought him to court.

In the 2007 trial Superior Court Judge John Tomasello ruled that Dare would keep the dog and give Houseman $1,500 in compensation for how much the pug cost to buy.

"Dogs are chairs; they're furniture; they're automobiles, they're pensions. They're not kids," Tomasello said.

But three appeals judges disagreed, a “landmark decision,” according to Houseman’s lawyer Gina Calogero.

In March three judges ordered a second trial for the custody of Dexter. The judges stated that Superior Court Judge John Tomasello “should not have treated Dexter like another piece of furniture” during the 2007 trial in Gloucester County. Tomasello will now be judge to a new trial on the matter in Salem County.

Pets are not furniture, yes. But they aren’t children either. Should pet custody be given just as much attention and time in the courts as child custody? Not according to Dare’s attorney James M. Carter.

"If you tell family judges they have to treat every pet as a child to determine which 'parent' keeps the pet, or how to divide parenting time, this will add a heavy burden on an already heavy caseload," Carter said.

But even the appeals judges did not say the dog should be treated the same as child custody. They said that Dexter was like “’heirlooms, family treasures and works of art’ whose ‘special subjective value’ should be factored in by the court,” and that monetary compensation would not do.

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