Animal Custody in New York City Divorce

According to a 2014 study from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), attorneys across the country have noticed a sizeable increase in the number of pet custody cases over the past five years. New Yorkers love their pets, and often consider their furry friends to be an extension of their family. This can cause complications during the divorce process.

Pets Considered Property

New York State does not currently have a law in place that acts as a precedent in determining animal custody cases. The court considers a pet to be a form of property, which means your animal family member is subject to the terms of equitable distribution. Because of this, parties will have to prove whether or not the animal is premarital or marital property. If an animal was purchased, adopted, or otherwise acquired by one spouse prior to the marriage, then ownership of the pet would likely go to that spouse. But what happens when the animal is a gift, or otherwise acquired during the marriage?

Animal Lovers Get their Day in Court

An increasing number of judges are starting to recognize the intense bond people have with their pets, and are allowing parties to argue their cases for pet custody in open court. New York County Supreme Court judge Matthew Cooper is no stranger to animal custody actions. In December 2013, he granted a same-sex couple the right to argue for custody of their two-year old mini-dachshund named Jack. Manhattan resident Shannon Louise Tate purchased the puppy for her girlfriend, Trisha Bridget Murray, prior to their marriage. Their union only lasted a year, but both parties claimed an ownership over Jack.

Judge Cooper said he planned to address the animal custody issue in the same way family court judges decide child custody cases. This means that he will take into consideration what is in the pet’s best interest. On his decision to allow the one-day “custody” trial, Cooper said, “If judicial resources can be devoted to such matters as which party gets to use the Escalade as opposed to the Ferrari, or who gets to stay in the Hamptons house instead of the Aspen chalet, there is certainly room to give real consideration to a case involving a treasured pet”.

Judge Cooper’s decision to recognize the need for animal custody agreements is being echoed across the country. For example, while New Jersey still considers pets to be property, the court classifies them as a special and unique form of property. Family pets don’t have the monetary value of a piece of artwork, as their value is mostly emotional and subjective.

Pet Custody Cases and Family Court

New York State Family Courts do not hear custody cases involving animals since family pets are considered to be property. To address animal custody and visitation, you must incorporate the issue into your divorce action. Your attorney can do this by filing a motion with the Supreme Court that would grant you ownership of the pet. Alternatively, you may request judicial approval of a visitation schedule between you and your ex as part of your divorce agreement.

Animal Custody and Visitation Schedules

As with child custody cases, it is best if spouses can reach an agreement without the court’s intervention when it comes to dividing time with their pet. These agreements will vary on a case-by-case basis.

New Yorkers Patti and Steve Whittier faced this dilemma during their 2013 divorce. Patti assumed she would maintain ownership of the former couple’s pugs since she was their primary caretaker, but Steve wasn’t willing to give up his treasured pets. Steve refused to accept Patti’s initial offer of letting him have visitation with the dogs every other weekend. Their attorneys negotiated a contract outlining a joint custody plan that let the dogs spend alternating weeks at each parent’s home.

Agreement Violations

What can you do if your spouse violates the animal custody or visitation agreement? The appropriate course of action depends on the agreement and the violation. For instance, if your ex is refusing to pay their share of the animal’s veterinary bills, then your lawyer can petition the courts for an enforcement of your final order of divorce. Serious violations can result in a change of custody, which would strip your former spouse of any legal right to the pet.

Before taking legal action, most attorneys will send the opposing counsel a letter outlining the violations, and asking for these issues to be addressed in lieu of appearing in court. It is typically faster and more cost effective to settle any post-judgment violations without judicial intervention. Oftentimes, parties will go through mediation to resolve violation issues.

New York City Pet Custody Attorneys

Once a taboo subject, the idea of custody and visitation for beloved family pets is becoming more prevalent in the legal world. Judges and attorneys are quickly adapting to handle such cases. At the family law firm of Brian D. Perskin & Associates, P.C., we recognize the strong bond our clients have with their animals. We are proud to represent New York City residents during tough divorce proceedings, especially when ownership of their pet is on the line. For more information, contact us for a free and confidential consultation today.

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