Pets are like members of the family and their best interests are now considered by the court in pet custody decisions in New York divorces. Animal companions are not given the same attention as children, but they are no longer relegated to property.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a new law in October 2021 that instructs judges to consider a pet’s best interests when deciding custody of the animal in divorce or separation proceedings. Alaska became the first state to pass a similar law in 2017. New Hampshire, Illinois, and California also have a best-interests standard in pet custody cases.
Furry Companions Are Not Furniture
Courts have traditionally considered pets similarly to any other property like a sofa or kitchen table. Gone are the days of the household pet being a belonging. Today, beloved four-legged companions are often treated as well as the humans in the house. They eat designer food, receive acupuncture for aches and pains, and have a closet of clothes.
This elevated role of the family pet has led to an increase in pet custody disputes in the last few decades. The increase is most apparent in childless couples who viewed their pets similarly to children.
Not All Animals Are Considered Pets
The law narrowly defines what is considered a household pet in relation to the custody law. The legislation reads that a companion animal “shall have the same meaning as in subdivision five of section three hundred fifty of the agriculture and markets law.” Animals that are normally domesticated qualify: dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, and others. Chickens, pigs, goats, and other farm animals do not qualify.
Pet Spending on the Rise
Most U.S. households have a pet and are spending more on their veterinarian care, grooming, toys, and accessories. According to the American Pet Products Association, about 90 million U.S. families have pets and spent more than $123 billion on them in 2021. For context, Americans spent about $90 million caring for companion animals in 2018.
Best Interests of a Companion Animal
When a divorcing or separating couple disputes who should get the pet, New York judges are now tasked with considering the best interests of the animal when deciding where it will live. In the past, ownership was often given to the name on an adoption contract or vet records.
The 2021 law is an upgrade to the 2018 guidance where judges were instructed to consider the “best for all concerned” standard in pet custody.
The same factors will continue to be part of a judge’s decision:
- Who has provided the pet’s primary care?
- Whose home will be most comfortable for the pet?
- Are there children affected by where the pet lives?
- Who spent the most time with the pet?
Our divorce lawyers can further shape a judge’s opinion by bringing in the testimony of veterinarians, pet trainers, and other experts. The court will determine who can best meet the needs of the pet and promote its welfare and well-being.
Fight to Keep a Beloved Pet
Litigated divorce cases are decided by a judge after hearing testimony and reviewing evidence. Only about 10% of divorces end up in court. The vast majority are hammered out through negotiation. Full custody and shared custody arrangements, including a visitation schedule, are possible. The cost to care for the pet can also be addressed in a divorce agreement.
If you are divorcing or separating, an attorney from the Law Office of Dennis R. Vetrano, Jr., LLC can evaluate the specifics of your case and provide guidance on possible next steps.
To schedule a consultation, contact us online or call (845) 605-4330.