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Dividing the Dog: The Challenges of Pet Custody

If you’re a pet parent like I am, you already know that the animal-human bond is strong, often outlasting bonds between people. That’s why issues of pet custody often are complex and emotional for divorcing couples. Dogs and cats are members of the family in the eyes of their owners, and judges and divorce mediators find that the battle over who gets the pets can be as contentious as custody of the children.

The courts traditionally have considered pets as “property” to be divided in the same way as silverware and furniture. But, recent cases indicate that attitudes are changing. New York’s first matrimonial pet custody case, Travis v. Murray, 2013 NY Slip Op 23405 [42 Misc 3d 447], concerned a couple arguing over sole custody of its two-year-old dachshund, Joey.

In granting the motion for a hearing, Judge Matthew Cooper expressed surprise that the case was breaking new ground. “Considering New Yorkers’ dedication to their dogs and their propensity for litigation, [the surprise] is that there are so few reported cases from the courts of this state dealing with pet custody in general and no cases at all making a final award of a pet.”

Judge Cooper, a dog owner himself, recognized that the conflict over Joey could not be held to a “strict property analysis.” But he stopped short of raising the pet’s status. Although the issue of Joey’s custody was settled before the hearing, Judge Cooper’s opinion is well worth a read for its insight and perspective.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) suggests that the standard for pet custody disputes should be the best interests of the animal. “Although animals are considered property in the eyes of the law at this time, some courts are beginning to recognize that one’s relationship with this particular form of property known as the family cat, dog, bird etc., is much different from one’s relationship with other forms of property such as your couch, your watch or your coffee pot.”

The “best interests” are clearer in some cases than others. The court may ask:

  • Who takes care of the pet’s basic needs such as feeding, walking or litter box cleaning, grooming, and supervision?
  • Which party takes the pet to the veterinarian?
  • Who has the financial resources to support the pet?
  • Which party can provide the most familiar routine and surroundings for the pet?

Shared custody may seem like a fair solution, but shuttling the pet back and forth can be stressful for animals, especially cats. Keep the interests of the pet front and center as you think through custody issues.

If you’re in — or about to be in — a relationship that involves a pet, you may want to “put the pup in the pre-nup,” i.e., decide in advance on arrangements for the pet if the relationship ends. Planning for the end of a relationship at its onset is never comfortable, but it will assure the security of your beloved pet — and your own peace of mind.