Brian D. Perskin & Associates

But Who Gets The Dog?

New York City residents are, without a doubt, pet people. From cats to dogs, and every critter in between, couples are increasingly welcoming animals into their homes. But what happens to your beloved pet when you get divorced?

Some courts view a pet to be a form of property, in which case, judges will apply the same guidelines that they would while determining which spouse gets a certain item. If the pet was purchased, adopted, or acquired by any other means prior to the marriage, the animal would most likely stay with its original owner. However, given the growing number of divorce cases that include custody battles for our furry friends, some judges are starting to put more thought and time into considering which spouse will maintain ownership. Pets are considered to be more than just mere animals in modern culture; rather, they are valued members of family units and should be treated as so in the court's eyes.

A groundbreaking case is underway in New York County. Shannon Loiuse Travis is currently locked in a custody battle with her soon-to-be ex-wife, Trisha Bridget Murray. The two aren't fighting for custody of a child; instead they both want to be the sole caregiver for a 2-year old mini-dachshund named Joey. The case is being heard in front of Manhattan Justice Matthew Cooper, who has decided to let the case go to trial in lieu of treating little Joey like a form of property. Justice Cooper is planning on asking both parties' questions that are similar to those asked in a child custody hearing, such as "Who spent more time with Joey on a consistent basis?" and "Who provided a majority of the care for Joey?".

Since pets are legally considered to be property, the courts do not have to take an animal's best interest in mind while determining custody. However, some judges are doing just that. Certain judges and attorneys are pushing to expand current laws that would ultimately change the way pet custody is decided. Michigan State University College of Law professor David Favre, who lectures on Animal Law, has developed the concept of "living property". Favre defines this as "physical, movable living objects- not human- that have an inherent self-interest in their continued well-being and existence." If this concept comes to fruition and becomes law, it would force the courts to consider the animal's well-being and best interest while determining custody, even though the pet would still be considered property.

Couples who are in the midst of a divorce may be inclined to take their animal custody issue to court for a variety of reasons. One party could want sole ownership because they really love their pet and can't imagine parting with them, or because they believe that they can provide the best possible life for the animal. In some cases, it is possible that a spouse feels a strong resentment for their ex, and is only fighting for custody to hurt the other party. Regardless of the reason why couples are debating Fido's fate, there are some questions to ask yourself while trying to determine animal custody:

  1. Has your spouse been abusive or neglectful towards the pet?
  2. Are you the primary parent (either you have sole physical custody, or spent more time at home with the children during the marriage), and your children have a special bond with the animal?
  3. Are you financially secure enough to care for a pet?
  4. Will you have enough space in your home for your animal, or do you live near a dog park? If you rent, does your landlord allow pets?
  5. Do you have enough time between your work schedule and personal commitments to properly care for a pet?

Courts across the country are being forced to reconsider how they determine animal custody disputes during divorce cases. Americans love their pets, and they are more than willing to take the custody issue to a judge. Many people believe that the law is due for a change, and they are urging lawmakers to address the issue of animal custody. Justice Cooper, who is presiding over the groundbreaking Travis v. Murray case in New York, has the daunting task of deciding which spouse will maintain sole ownership of a 2-year old dog named Jack. There is no way of telling how he will rule, but it can be assumed that this court case will be used as a reference for judges throughout New York State who are faced with pet custody cases.