How Much Is That Doggie In The Living-room Window?

Roger Caras’ famous quote, ”Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole,” speaks volumes when it comes to divorcing couples and their pet. I am sure any couple sharing their lives with a dog, cat, bird or horse can substitute their pet of choice in Mr. Caras’ quote.  Human animal bond theorists and medical academia tout the benefits of having an animal on our human health and psyche. Studies make it clear; the human animal bond enhances our lives by its presence.

A recent New York court decision, Travis v. Murray, recognized this bond in a more tangible way than ever before while reviewing a conflict over a pet in a divorce proceeding.  It discussed the value of a pet in divorce. 

In Travis v. Murray, Judge Matthew Cooper found that the argument before the court involving two spouses battling over a dog they once possessed and raised together couldn’t be held, “to a strict
property analysis.” Judge Cooper did not find the family pet a human being, “but is decidedly more than a piece of property marital or otherwise.”  Judge Cooper stopped short of giving the pet a higher status than the family Escalade or Ferrari.

Shannon Travis and Trisha Murray were a married couple that acquired Joey, a miniature dachshund, in happier times and before they were married.  The plaintiff, Travis, claimed she bought the dog with her own money before marriage.  The plaintiff, Murray, stated she received Joey as a gift before marriage to assuage the loss of her cat, re-homed at the plaintiff’s request.   It is clear that the married couple, embroiled in this litigation, felt Joey was very important to them for different reasons.  If you are a married couple with pets you may want to read the decision. Judge Cooper wrote a lovely 17-page decision you can view here.

The rest of this article helps you avoid having your beloved pet become a litigious item in your divorced or the termination of a relationship with pets. The 4 tips at the end help settle any
argument now, before relationship-ending litigation ensues.

In Travis v. Murray, Judge Cooper talked about how one-time “happy spouses” who are now divorcing ask the courts, “to decide what happens to the pet that each of the parties still loves and each of them still want,” in their lives.  He did a masterful job recognizing the emotions involved in this case.  He also spoke of limitations placed upon the court when asked to make decisions of this kind by the litigants.

Judge Cooper, recognizing the dilemma he and the ex’s found themselves in, ordered a hearing on the topic of, “who gets the dog?’”  He then limited the plaintiff and respondent’s use of this court ordered hearing to deciding the issue of sole custody.  The court would entertain no joint custody or visitation agreements.  He also refrained from using the best interest standard; rather he ordered the use of the Raymond v. Lachmann standard (264 AD2d 340 [1st Dept 1999]) of, “best for all concerned.” 

Having a divorce court order a hearing on, “who gets the dog,” was a groundbreaking decision. It
was also a heartbreaking decision, because in the hearing one ex-spouse will lose all ownership rights of their beloved pet.  It makes clear the position of most courts in the land.  Though the family pet is no longer a chair, the court is not ready to support a non-property shared custody or visitation agreement for an animal.  Although the court recognized both exes’ loved and felt responsible for the pet as a family member, it rejected joint custody.  It required the complainants to decide who would get sole possession of the animal, just as they do for a chair, car or painting.

The people at the center of this pet custody battle once lived happily together with their furry child. The parties grew apart due to circumstances in their lives unrelated to their pet. Often the pet is the last best thing the spouses remember about their dissolving relationship. Relinquishing the animal, due to changes in their personal relationship, is heart wrenching.  

Pets have also been used as a wedge or a cross in the dissolution negotiations.  If one party knows how valuable sole custody of the animal is to the other, they can be relentless in their demands. 
They will hold the pet for ransom, similar to what is done in child custody battles.

In Travis v. Murray, sole custody was given to Murray even before the hearing was conducted.  No additional agreements were entered into that would keep all parties abreast of the dog’s welfare.  The non-custodial Travis does not, at this time, have the opportunity to see Joey, offer to help with medical expenses or take over the care of Joey if needed.  Neither the court nor the divorce attorneys thought about putting a mechanism in place to alert the alternate pet parent if the possessing parent or pet fall on hard times and re-homing is needed.  These and other nightmares have been the experiences of pet owning ex-partners.

In sole custody pet cases there is no provision for preserving the losing partners connection to the animal.  One such case, where a husband gave up custody of the pet to his wife, had him find out years later that the pet was dropped off at an animal shelter shortly after the papers were signed.  Similarly, you may discover your beloved cat was euthanized because the sole possessing partner could not afford to give it the care it
needed.  If there is no future provision for you to have the opportunity to offer to cover the expenses, you will not be included in the decision.

If you are currently in a relationship with a pet there are 4 easy steps you can take to assure you are ready for the care of your pet short and long-term and post relationship. 

The 4 steps are easy to remember:  PETS

P – Pre/Post Pet acquisition agreement. People draw up agreements when money or property are involved.  Why not create a similar agreement when a beloved pet is at the crux of the conflict. You can include a visitation schedule, a right of first refusal if one party can no longer care for the pet and a stipulation for shared health information.

E – Engage in the pet conversation immediately upon acquiring the pet.  This is key. It will be in everyone’s best interest, especially the pets.

T – Take your time addressing the future custody of your pet. Make sure you consider everyone’s time, cost and availability to care for the pet. 

S – Solve for what is the best for all concerned.
Put follow up mechanisms in place that will enable the parties to truly act for the, “best for all concerned.”

For the pet in your relationship, follow these 4 Easy Steps – PETS.  They will provide for the pet’s future security and the people’s future peace of mind.

                        author

Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton

Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, is the principal of Hamilton Law and Mediation, (HLM) Debra provides an alternative means of resolving disagreements between pet enthusiasts over misunderstandings, misstatements or oversights.  She helps owners deal with neighbors over barking dog and divorcing couples arranging pet custody agreements.  She enables a less heated conversation… MORE >

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