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New York State Senate Passes “Best Interests of the Pet” Custody Bill

Traditionally, the law has treated pets as property, leading to legal results that fail to acknowledge the tremendous role that dogs, cats and other animals play in the lives of their owners. For example, damages in lawsuits where a defendant’s negligent actions result in the death of a plaintiff’s pet would often only cover the cost of purchasing the same type of pet. This can create a great deal of heartache for people who would never associate their beloved companion with a piece of furniture or some other item that can be replaced by simply going out and buying a new one.

Now, the New York State Legislature has passed a bill that would require judges in divorce proceedings to consider the well-being of a family pet when deciding which spouse should take possession of the animal when their marriage ends. This legislation has been sent to Governor Hochul. If she signs the bill and enacts it into law, it will formalize the new way to examine pet custody issues that many courts have observed over the last decade.

Though the bill passed both houses with overwhelming support, there are some potential complications that could arise if the law goes into effect. Determining what is in a pet’s best interests might be a difficult task. In child custody cases, a son or daughter who is mature enough is usually permitted to state their preference, though the court need not honor their wishes. Even younger boys and girls might be able to send clear indications about what type of arrangements best suit their needs. This could be very difficult in proceedings involving dogs and cats. Judges typically have the ability to look at any factor they feel is relevant during these determinations. Will lawyers litigate about whether a pet is happier on their own in a home or with animal playmates?

Another wrinkle concerns how far the legislation will extend. The law would apply the best interests standard to “companion animals” as defined in the state’s Agriculture and Market Law. That passage explicitly includes dogs and cats and excludes farm animals. However, “companion animal” also covers any other domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the owner’s household, so hamsters, goldfish and other pets might also fall under the statute.

If you’re going through a divorce, you deserve a knowledgeable compassionate attorney who understands what is most important to you, whether that is a pet’s well-being or anything else. At Jakubowski, Robertson, Maffei, Goldsmith & Tartaglia, LLP we provide that type of counsel to divorcing spouses in Nassau and Suffolk counties.