Most people consider pets members of the family, so it can be distressing to learn divorce courts give very little consideration to pets. In most states, a pet is simply another piece of property to be divided between the divorcing couple. No consideration is given to the animal’s needs or that most pets are practically children in the eyes of their owners. An animal is an asset to be distributed in the divorce. However, a new law in New York has changed the way courts consider pets in a divorce - a change most families will welcome.
New York’s Companion Animal Divorce Law
Governor Hochul signed the new law, which applies to what is called a “companion animal.” A companion animal includes:
- Other domesticated animals living in or near the home and cared for by the owner(s)
This law does NOT include any farm animal.
Under the new law, when a divorce or separation case is heard in New York, the court must consider three things when determining possession of a companion animal:
- Whether any domestic violence has been committed by either party against the other party and, if so, its extent, nature, duration, and impact.
- The best interests of the animal.
- Any other factors the court considers just and proper.
Effect of the New Law
The new law places pets in a similar position to children in a divorce or separation. Domestic violence is a factor that must be considered when deciding custody of children; “best interests” is the standard used for making a child custody determination.
New York lists other specific factors a court must take into account when deciding child custody. These include:
- The parents’ relationships with the child and which parent has been the primary caretaker.
- The health of all the parties.
- Each parents’ parenting skills.
- The child’s relationship with half-siblings and other family members.
- The parties’ work schedules and childcare arrangements.
- The ability of each parent to support the child’s educational needs.
- The ability of the parents to cooperate and parent together moving forward.
- The child’s age and preference or opinion about custody.
Since custody of the pet depends on its best interests, courts will likely consider factors such as:
- The primary caretaker of the pet (which spouse fed it, walked it, played with it, took it to the vet, etc.?), and the relative relationships of each spouse to the pet during the marriage.
- Whether the pet was owned by one spouse prior to the marriage.
- The health of each spouse (an older or infirm spouse is less likely to get custody of a very active pet, for example).
- Any incidences of domestic violence perpetrated by one spouse, as well as evidence of violence against pets.
- Relative work schedules (how much time they can spend with the pet) and available pet care arrangements (such as dog sitters or doggie daycare).
- Special needs the pet may have, such as regular medication, special diet, physical therapy, or regular exercise needs.
- How conducive each spouse’s home is for the pet (such as a yard for a dog, carpeted floors for an older dog, the presence of poisonous houseplants, a dangerous balcony a cat might climb onto, etc.).
- If there are children, where they will live and their relationship with the pet and how custody of the pet will impact the children.
- The ability of the parties to share time with the pet in a joint custody situation.
- Pet supplies at each home (litter box, cages for small animals, toys, beds, feeding bowls, brushes, etc.).
Presenting Your Case
If you are seeking custody of your pet in a divorce or separation, the following evidence can help your attorney make your case and ensure you obtain custody of the animal:
- Regular videos and photos of your pet or you with your pet.
- Veterinary records about the pet’s medical needs.
- Veterinary records reflecting which spouse took the animal to the vet.
- Calendar entries showing occasions you took the pet to the vet, to daycare, for grooming, or for walks.
- Notes about who generally feeds the animal, empties the litter box, walks the dog, gives medication, or cleans the cage.
- Information about domestic violence and any violence against your pet.
- Your schedules, showing you have adequate time for pet care and your spouse does not.
- The relationship your children have with the pet and the importance of children and pet being in the same household together.
- The pet-friendly nature of your home and an inventory of the pet supplies you have.
Pets are family members. This new law fully recognizes this and ensures custody of pets is considered carefully by New York courts.