Who Gets Custody of Your Dog If You Break Up?
Although we don’t like to think about our human relationships ending at the time we are adding a pet to our family, the reality is that our pets sometimes outlive our relationships. And if they do, who keeps your pet after your break-up? Do you keep your pet exclusively? Do you treat your pet like a child and share “custody” of him? How do you divide expenses for your pet, like food, supplies, and veterinary care? We like to think that we would be able to resolve these questions cooperatively after our relationships end, but what does the law say?
Traditionally, New York law has treated dogs, cats, and other types of companion animals as property, the same way it treats a couch or a lamp. That means, when a couple breaks up, the court treats the pet as a piece of personal property to be awarded to one of the parties.
We all know that our pets are far more important to us than our household furniture, and New York case law has slowly started to recognize that fact. In 1999, the Court issued the first appellate-level decision departing from this traditional property analysis and classified a pet (in that case, a cat) as a special type of property, acknowledging that pets cannot be treated the same as our other worldly possessions.
In that case, the Court created a new standard for deciding ownership disputes over household pets – the “best for all concerned” standard. In the years following this decision, the case law has developed and expanded this standard to include consideration of certain factors such as: the pet’s well-being, the relationship between the pet and the owners, who was responsible for caring for the pet’s daily needs, who spent more time with the pet, the home environment of each party, and each party’s physical and financial ability to care for the pet, amongst others.
Courts have been very clear over the years that cases involving ownership disputes of pets cannot be treated exactly the same as custody disputes over children – which apply a “best interests” standard – but 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.
Whether you’re married, engaged, or dating, couples often test the compatibility of their relationships by their ability to “co-parent” a treasured family pet. What is important to remember is that, just like a future child, our pets come with emotional, psychological, and financial responsibilities that can and very well may outlive your relationship.
New York, through its judicial decisions, is taking note of this reality. It is critically important to discuss and agree on what will happen to our pets; who pays their veterinary expenses; who pays for grooming; who makes decisions regarding medical treatment and potential euthanasia; who cares for our pets if we pass away; and what funds will be available to pay these expenses in the event of a break-up.
Even if your relationship ends without having reached an agreement on these issues, thanks to our thoughtful and forward-thinking judiciary, pet owners are not without recourse to determine what type of ownership arrangement of their pet is “best for all concerned.”
At Copps DiPaola Silverman, PLLC, we were recently successful in handling a complicated “pet custody” case involving a seven-year-old dog whose owners split up after eight years of dating. In that case, we successfully litigated a shared “custody” schedule between our client and his ex, which included decisions about where and when the exchanges would occur, how the parties would divide expenses for grooming, medications, and veterinary care, who would make major medical decisions in the event of an emergency, and what would happen with their dog in the event of one of their deaths. Having this type of agreement in place protects both parties and provides clear guidance for how their pet will be cared for after their separation – just as you would do for your child at the end of a relationship.
If you, or someone you know, is thinking about adding a pet to the family, please contact us to discuss your rights and the potential ramifications should your current relationship end. If you are going through a divorce or a break-up and your pet is caught in the middle, please contact us to discuss your legal rights and how to best proceed to ensure that you (and your pet) are protected.
We understand that pets are so much more than possessions to many people (us included!), and we are here to assist you in protecting your entire family – whether they have two legs or four.