Perhaps it seems strange to those without pets, but many New York animal owners agree: a beloved dog or cat can feel like part of the family. When married parents get divorced, they must figure out a child custody arrangement that is in the children’s best interest, or have the judge do it. But what happens to the pets in a divorce?
Traditionally, family law courts have treated dogs, cats and other house pets as chattel. That is a legal term for personal property. In other words, the law treats pets the same way it did books, furniture and similar items.
Thus, when the spouses cannot agree who gets the pet as part of their property division settlement, the court will award the animal to the spouse who owns it. Evidence like who paid for the pet, or was the primary caretaker, can help establish ownership for one of the spouses.
If former spouses want to establish “pet custody” in which they share their dog or cat, they can, but the court is very unlikely to order a custody arrangement. However, the law may be changing, according to the New York Post. In 2013, a family court judge made a ruling in a dispute over a dog using the standard “in the dog’s best interests,” the same standard long used in child custody disputes.
Could this mean that judges will consider pet custody matters with the same care and attention that they currently use when deciding where a divorcing couple’s sons and daughters will live? Perhaps. Though few would argue that a pet’s needs are as crucial as a human boy or girl, animals are living beings to which humans can form deep attachments.