New Law Requires NY Judges to Consider Pets’ “Best Interests” in Deciding on Possession

New York has recently passed a law that greatly affects how household pets are treated in divorce cases. Judges are now required “to consider the best interest of a companion animal” in deciding which of the divorcing spouse takes possession. This is a significant development in New York domestic relations law and might be an indicator of changes in perspective on animal rights in recent years.

By enacting the new law, New York joins California, Alaska and Illinois as the only states that recognize an animal’s health, safety and welfare as guiding factors in judges’ decisions on “pet custody.”

Many people think of their pets as part of the family. Devoted pet owners put great effort into the care and protection of their companions and some even view pets like children. This can and does lead to friction during divorce. A fight over the pet can cause an otherwise amicable divorce to become a contested one. One spouse can use the pet as leverage to extract concessions from the other.

Historically, pets were treated just like any other property in a divorce. A judge would award one party a pet in the same way as deciding who gets a piece of furniture. The judge’s decision often depended upon which spouse actually bought the pet or who was most responsible for its food, shelter and health care. The law largely did not value companion animals beyond their monetary value.

Over time, the legal system in New York evolved to better reflect pet owner values. In the late 1990s, a New York Appellate Court ruled that pets are a unique type of property requiring special treatment. More recently judges have been using “best for all concerned” as an additional factor when deciding pet possession.

The new legislation goes much further. In essence, it recognizes that pets are sentient beings deserving of the most humane treatment. However, the court will continue to weigh the effect of pet possession on the interests of the divorcing spouses and of any children involved.

Future developments in the law are never certain. That said, the current trajectory nationwide is that animal rights will be afforded even more legal recognition. At some point, courts might be required to consider pets more like children than chairs. Judges hearing divorce cases could be crafting pet custody orders rather than simply awarding possession.

Located in Rochester, New York, the Law Office of Maurice Verrillo, P.C. provides diligent and compassionate representation in all types of family law matters. If you wish to discuss any issues relating to divorce, feel free to contact us online or call 585-563-1134 for an initial phone consultation.


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