New legislation in New York gives courts the power to choose who gets the pets in a divorce.
It’s sad when a marriage ends, but love is sometimes not enough. The United States Census reported New York’s divorce rate was 6.1 in 2019, while the marriage rate was 14.3 the same year. When couples get divorced, the courts are forced to decide who gains custody of certain assets such as cars, houses, and children when couples cannot reach an agreement themselves. But who gets the pets?
People often consider their pets as members of the family. Most courts give very little consideration to pets. In most states, a pet is simply another piece of property to be divided between the divorcing couple. The courts rarely consider the animal’s needs or that most pet owners view their pets as children. An animal is an asset to be distributed in the divorce. However, a new law in New York has changed how courts consider pets in a divorce – a change most families will welcome.
New York’s Companion Animal Divorce Law
Governor Hochul signed a new law that applies to a “companion animal.” A companion animal can be dogs, cats, birds, or any other domesticated animals living in or near the home and cared for by the owner. This law does not include any farm animal. The court must consider three things when determining possession of a companion animal:
- any domestic violence committed by either party against the opposing party or the animal in dispute. If acts of violence have been established, the court must consider their extent, nature, duration, and impact.
- The animals’ best interests must be taken into consideration.
- Any other factors the court might consider just and proper.
Effect of the New Law
Bill S4248 passed in the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Hochul in February 2021. The new law places pets in a similar position to children in a divorce or separation. Domestic violence is a factor when deciding the custody of children; “best interests” is the standard for making a child custody determination. With that understanding, Senate Bill S4248 requires the court to consider the companion animals’ best interest when awarding possession in a divorce or separation proceeding.
Other Specific Factors
New York divorce law lists other specific factors a court must consider when deciding child custody. Since pets are placed in a similar category as children, custody of the pet also depends on its best interests. Therefore, courts will likely consider factors such as:
- who was the primary caretaker- (which spouse fed it, walked it, played with it, took it to the vet, etc.?)
- the relationships each spouse had with the pet during the marriage.
- was the pet owned by one spouse before the marriage.
- The health of each spouse.
- if any cases of domestic violence have been perpetrated by one spouse or violence against the pets.
- If there are children involved, how custody of the pet will impact the children?
- The ability of the parties to share time with the pet in a joint custody situation.
Other factors will also be considered when determining which spouse wins custody of the companion pet. The bottom line is that once the court is involved with the proceedings, they can, by law, decide who gets to keep the pets.