Like so many New Yorkers, married couples are often deeply devoted to their pets. One recent study even found that “most pet owners would not trade their pets for even $1 million in cash”. Couples facing divorce often find themselves spending considerable sums asking courts to decide who will take custody of a pet. But there is no guarantee that, in doing so, the court will take into account the deep emotional connection most of us feel to our pets.
In New York, courts have long considered family pets to be more like personal property rather than members of the family. Thus, the pet is—like other property—subject equitable distribution, so the court will determine which party takes the pet based upon who purchased the pet, the value of the pet and who paid for a majority of the pet’s care. For most pet lovers, this approach hardly reflects the role pets play in their lives—especially in the wake of a divorce.
To be sure, some courts have been willing to diverge from this traditional view. Sometimes courts will conduct a custody-type analysis when determining who will keep the family pet—that is, asking which arrangement would be “best for all concerned.” For example, the court in a recent New York case, Travis v. Murray, listed several factors that could influence this decision, including which party will benefit from having the pet in his or her life and why the pet has “a better chance of living, prospering, loving and being loved in the care of one party over the other.” But many judges continue to treat pets as property to be divided in a divorce.
There are many reasons why, but at least one explanation is that uncovering the information needed to conduct a best-for-all-concerned analysis takes a lot of time—a judge’s most precious resource. And even a judge willing to take the time to engage in a custody analysis for a pet lacks the flexibility families often need in these situations. For example, the court in Travis made clear that the party awarded the pet was given sole custody—eliminating any rights the other spouse had to see the pet.
Unlike courts, mediated or negotiated divorce agreements can always accommodate a pet’s role in the lives of all of the members of the family. Such agreements can, and often do, provide for sole custody, joint custody, visitation and pet support—all based upon the parties’ perspectives on what is best for themselves and the family pet. To learn more about these fur friendly options, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (646) 491-9008 to schedule an initial consultation.