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A form of ‘pet custody’ may be coming to New York divorces

Everyone knows that when parents of minors get divorced, they must work out a child custody parenting plan. But while most people also love their dogs, cats and other pets, there is no such thing as “pet custody” in New York.

For now. The state legislature recently passed a bill that would instruct the judge to consider a pet’s best interests when a divorcing couple cannot agree who gets to keep it.

Child custody vs. ‘pet custody’

Figuring out where a family pet will live during separation and divorce is technically a property division matter. Legally speaking, pets are “chattel,” a legal term that means personal property. But of course, unlike furniture or cars, animals are living creatures. They often prefer one spouse over the other, perhaps because they belonged to that spouse before the marriage, or the spouse was the primary carer for the pet.

Living with their favorite human could be in a pet’s best interest. Currently, judges tend to consider factors like who bought the animal and paid their expenses, such as food and vet care. If Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs this bill, it would separate pets from other forms of chattel in New York divorce law. However, pets would still be considered property; New York would not introduce pet custody into the law.

Finding solutions outside of the courtroom

As with most property division matters, the majority of divorcing couples decide outside of court what to do about their pets. This can take sensitivity as well as a sound negotiation strategy. The matter can be more emotional than dividing up the retirement plan or record collection. Alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation may be able to help.