Animal Custody In a Divorce

           One of the most unpredictable conflicts often at the center of divorce battles is pet custody. Couples who don’t have children and are in the midst of divorce proceedings are referring to their pets as their children.

In recent years statistics show that 73% of pet owners have given greeting cards “signed” by a pet, 67% take their pets to the vet more often than they go to their own doctors, and 41% take their pets on vacation with them. These statistics show how involved and emotionally attached pet owners are to their pets. These emotions come into play when a couple is getting divorced and both parties want to keep the pet.

When married animal owners decide to go their separate ways, what happens to their pets? In contested matrimonial proceedings, courts are faced with having to split everything that a couple owns jointly. When courts divide property, they attempt to divide it as equitably as possible.

When it comes to child custody, courts recognize how important that decision is and approach it accordingly. However, assigning a pet to one spouse or the other does not fall within either property division or child custody. While courts traditionally treated pets as property, some divorce court judges in New York have begun to acknowledge that many owners regard their pets as far more important than houses and cars. Judges take this under consideration when determining which spouse will have possession of the pet.

Courts typically consider two options in determining which spouse will be given the family pet. The judge may be guided by property laws or by child custody laws.

In a 2015 New York Post article, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge Arthur Engoron is quoted saying that the most trying case of his career was deciding who gets custody of a mutt named Stevie. The judge declared Stevie to be co-owned between both parties. The lawyers urged the judge that this would not be possible since the parties do not get along. The judge advised the parties that if they could not come up with a co-parenting schedule for Stevie, Stevie would have to be put up for auction, as pets are considered property under the law. The judge also advised the parties, that they can’t steal or hide the dog. If one of the parties would engage in such behavior, the other side could come back and seek relief or they could go to the police. In this case, the judge took the route that he saw would be most beneficial for both parties and the pet. Since Stevie was being taken care of by both parties, it was only fair that both parties will be able to spend time with the pet going forward.

There are no set laws that judges turn to in order to determine who will receive pet custody. When buying a pet with your significant other, be sure to remember that the custody battle for that pet will not necessarily be in favor of one party over the other. Instead, the custody of the pet will be in the judge’s discretion.