Who Gets the Family Pet in New York Divorce Cases?


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It is common in divorce cases for spouses not to agree on how to divide their property. They may also disagree as to which party should have custody of their children. Family pets are another point of contention in these families, and the parties may have very strong feelings about who should get the family pet.

Custody or Property

While many people see family pets as part of the family and may want to work out custody agreements regarding pets that specify when each spouse will have time with the pet, courts have traditionally viewed pets as property. However, recent trends have moved in the direction of viewing pets as more than a couch or table. Alaska was the first state to give judges the power to consider the well-being of companion animals and award pet custody in a divorce.

Shift in New York

New York courts traditionally used a property-driven approach in determining which spouse gets the family pet. Couples would not agree to divorce settlements and would battle out bitter divorces because of disputes regarding pets. Often, the decision of who obtained the pet in divorce was based solely on which spouse could produce a receipt showing that he or she purchased the pet. Courts would often ignore such factors as which spouse walked, fed, groomed and cared for the pet the majority of the time. However, a recent shift in the law and legal perspective is changing this approach.

New York Pet Custody Criteria

New York has specific criteria when determining which party in a divorce will receive the pet. New York courts have held that pet custody is not the same as child custody and the same standards do not apply. However, the law also delineates the pet from being considered only personal property that represents a part of the marital estate subject to evaluation and division during divorce.

New guidance was passed on January 1, 2018. The law requires the New York court to use a best for all concerned standard when determining custody decisions regarding dogs and cats. While title alone does not determine custody, the court will consider how the pet was obtained. Additionally, the court also considers how the pet was cared for during the relationship and who provided this care. The court considers the spousesí actual arrangement regarding how they each spend time with a pet after the parties separate.

If there are children involved and the court is considering pet time-sharing, the court considers the relationship between the pet and children. If one parent gets primary custody or one parentís home represents the location where the children will be most often, the court usually awards this parent custody of the pet.

Increase in Pet Custody Disputes

A nationwide survey of divorce lawyers conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 27 percent of survey respondents had seen an increase in pet custody cases within the last five years. 88 percent of the disputes involved dogs while cats represented 5 percent of these disputes. Pet custody disputes are more common in cases in which the parties did not have children since the pet may substitute this role in many ways. One New York County case found that a dog should be treated as a member of the family and not as personal property. It held that the dog custody decision should be based on the best for all concerned standard. In addition to considering which party would best care for the dog, the emotional impact on the dog owner should also be considered.

Contact a Lawyer for Assistance with Your Pet Custody Dispute

This area of the law is recent and will likely require well-researched and contemplated arguments to convince a judge of which spouse would be best to receive the family dog or cat in a New York divorce. A family law lawyer can research applicable cases as well as cases that may not carry precedential weight in New York but that may nonetheless persuade a judge as to the rationale of a particular decision.

Divorce lawyers can discuss the particular circumstances surrounding your situation. He or she can assess the criteria that New York judges are now required to consider and explain which spouse the court may rule in favor for based upon these specific circumstances. He or she can also handle all negotiations with the other party or his or her legal counsel. Contact a lawyer for help with your pet custody dispute.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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