There is no shortage of pet lovers who consider their pets as part of their family. According to one article, 76% of pet owners say they feel guilty about leaving their animals at home and a big majority wouldn’t trade their pet for a million dollars. It’s not surprising then, that custody of pets is an issue in divorce. Traditionally, animals have been treated as property, the same as a car or jewelry. However, New York has recently recognized that companion animals are in a different category and deserve additional consideration when deciding who gets custody.
Under prior New York law, pets adopted before marriage were considered separate property and belonged to the spouse who adopted them. If they were adopted during the marriage, they were marital property and subject to equitable distribution. The new pet custody law eliminates the distinction and allows judges to consider the best interest of the animal in awarding custody in divorce cases.
How do you determine the best interests of an animal? That remains to be seen since it is a new law and it will take time to see how it is implemented. Matrimonial Court Judge Matthew Cooper in a case that inspired the new law, said that he thought the issue deserved a limited, one-day hearing at which the parties could make their case. Of course, what evidence will be allowed and how it will be weighed is unknown.
While this is an important step forward in the law, unfortunately, it may also become another battleground issue where spouses take out their anger on each other. That’s a huge mistake. Your pets (and your kids) deserve to have their “parents” come to a fair and compassionate resolution concerning their care. Better to settle with your spouse than take the chance the judge will rule in your favor after you’ve expended time, money and negative emotions fighting about it.
I am a strong advocate for using alternative dispute resolution in divorce. Mediation and collaborative divorce give the parties more control over the process and outcome. Spouses can resolve disputes faster, at a lower cost and with a higher degree of satisfaction as compared to litigation.