There is a bill on the desk of Governor Andrew Cuomo that, if signed, would require judges to consider the best interests of pets in divorce proceedings. There are already three states in the country the have Pet Custody Laws. These states are Alaska, Illinois, and, not surprisingly, California. Often considered and referred to as a part of the family, current New York State law considers pets property. Judges currently consider who bought the pet and who pays for its food and takes it to the vet. When custody of animals is disputed, a judge may also consider the type of home each spouse has, viewing a house with property a better fit than an apartment.
Through the years, divorcing couples have negotiated visitation and custody of pets as a part of their divorce agreement. But, just as is the case with child custody, it was not unheard of for an ex-spouse to return to court to change the pet custody agreement.
The law on Governor Cuomo’s desk would codify the currently non-binding legal standard started by a Manhattan judge in 2013. In that case, the judge ordered a one-day hearing specifically to look into the matter of pet custody. A couple going through a divorce was fighting for custody of a dog which one spouse bought for the other. The spouse that bought the dog dropped her claim on the dog.
On the surface, the reaction to a pet custody law might strike many people as going a little too far. How can you put a pet on the same level as children? The issue at hand is not that the law is looking to put an animal at the same level as a child. Like cases involving children, divorce issues regarding pets can be very emotional, and when emotions are involved, situations can get heated very quickly. Since the law technically treats a pet as property, a judge might oversimplify the issue leading to further cases being filed and anger and animosity remaining at a very high level between spouses. This could become an extremely tense situation if there are pets and children. A child’s ability to overcome the stresses of divorce are related to how their parents are behaving. Anger and fighting over a pet can lead to further issues regarding the children as well.
A spouse upset about the disposition of a pet may try to get retribution by trying to reopen child custody issues.
Another issue regarding pets is that they are living beings and do feel emotions such as stress. A stressed animal is a dangerous animal. If a pet is treated as property and is given to one spouse, the dog may become overly stressed to the point that they become a risk to others around them. A dog that is stressed is a greater risk of biting anyone who gets close to it. Dogs have other behaviors that will worsen when stressed, such as fighting with other dogs, digging, chewing, and being otherwise destructive. A stressed dog is also at risk of harming itself. Some dogs will chew on their forelegs when stressed, causing issues ranging from a rash through open wounds that can potentially become infected.
When a judge is required to look into the pet's best interests, issues such as these are being considered. We did a post recently on whether a child could testify in custody matters to express their opinion. No one is suggesting that a dog can be placed under oath and express their opinion. However, if giving additional consideration to the placement of a pet could alleviate the stress of other aspects of the divorce, such as child custody, and allow the dog to be less stressed, therefore being less of a risk to itself, people and property, then taking the time out to determine the best interests of a pet could be time well spent.
It is important to note that this law is only related to domesticated pets. The law does not affect livestock or animals being bred for slaughter to be used for food.
Anthony LoPresti has been a Family Law Attorney in New York for over 30 years and has the experience you need to get through one of the most challenging experiences of your life. Call our office for a free consultation.