Pet ownership is more prevalent than ever these days, with post-pandemic loneliness encouraging many New Yorkers to add another four-legged friend to their family unit. According to numbers from the New York City Development Corporation (NYCEDC), there are roughly 1.1 million pets in New York City. That alone comes out to about one pet in every three homes. This is a staggering number, not even factoring in the many pets upstate with access to more pet-friendly housing and services.
Coupled with the fact that over the past few years, pets have been treated with a similar amount of empathy to other adult humans, it’s not a stretch to say that some pet owners view their four-legged friends as a member of the family unit, akin to that of a child.
As such, New York passed long-overdue legislation in 2021 when it comes to providing courts with direction in granting and discussing pet/animal custody with couples looking to separate, and differentiate those standards from those couples that are married vs. in a relationship. However, many pet owners are still unaware of how this legislation may impact their ability to maintain a relationship with their pets should their romantic relationship or marriage end. While this is a relatively new legal issue, knowing how New York traditionally treats pets and companions can be the difference between maintaining contact with your four-legged friend or not.
How Does New York View Pets in Divorce Matters
Dogs, cats, and other companion animals have historically been regarded by New York law as property, much like a bed or desk. This means that if a couple gets divorced, the court will recognize the pet as personal property that will be divided between the parties.
However, following the passage of Senate Bill S4248, the “best interest of a companion animal must be considered when awarding possession in a divorce.” Companion animals may include dogs, cats, or any other domesticated animal living in or near the home and are cared for by the owners. An important caveat, however, is that this does not include any farm animals or livestock.
What this means is that in any divorce or separation case, New York Family Courts must consider some additional factors when determining who gets possession of a companion animal, including but not limited to:
- Whether either partner ever engaged in domestic violence against the other party;
- The pet’s well-being;
- The relationship between the pet and each owner;
- Who was responsible for attending to the pet’s daily needs;
- Who spends more time with the pet, and
- Each party’s physical and financial capabilities to support the pet.
Impacts of These Laws on Pet Owners
Over the years, courts have been very clear that ownership disputes involving pets cannot be treated exactly the same as custody disputes involving children, which apply a “best interests” standard. Instead, courts have held that a type of hybrid approach, the “best for all concerned” standard, is appropriate, given that a pet falls somewhere between personal property and an actual child.
Couples often evaluate the compatibility of their relationships by their ability to “co-parent” a beloved family pet, whether they are married, engaged, or dating. It’s crucial to keep in mind that, like a potential child, our pets come with financial, emotional, and psychological obligations that may very well outlast your relationship.
New York is taking notice of this reality through its judicial decisions. It is vitally important to talk about and come to agreements regarding our pets, including who is responsible for paying for their veterinary bills, grooming, medical treatment, and potential euthanasia, and how much money will be available to cover these costs in the event of a breakup. It is important to note, however, that in order for pet ownership or pet care provisions to be placed into a prenup or other agreement, the pet must be alive and under ownership at the time of formation. This is similar to children in prenups.
Even if your relationship ends without an agreement on these concerns, owing to our smart and forward-thinking judiciary, pet owners are not without recourse to establish what form of ownership arrangement for their pet is best for all parties.
It’s commonly acknowledged that pets are much more than possessions, and it is important to understand that there are people out there who can help you protect your entire family, whether they have two legs or four.
While New York seeks to ensure that the result of any pet custody matter is in the best interest of the pet, judges will still decide based on a set of best-interest factors, and knowing how to best articulate your relationship with your pet could be the difference maker in maintaining your companion relationship long after your human one.
Ryan McCall is an associate at Tully Rinckey PLLC and focuses his practice on family law. Ryan has a deep background in family and matrimonial law, where he has first-chair experience with a specialty in grandparent’s rights cases and representing victims of domestic violence in matrimonial, custody, and family offense cases. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (866) 269-0412.