Custody of Pets – When the Sparkle is Gone, Who Gets Sparky?

April 20, 2012
Louis Sternberg

When a marriage falls apart, there are many things to consider – the house, the children, the car; but, what about the dog?  Most people think custody battles are only for children, but think again.  According to the Huffington Post, there has recently been a substantial increase in disputes regarding custody of pets.

As a starting point, much to the chagrin of many pet owners, pets are considered “chattel” or property of the owner.  If one party clearly has ownership rights to a pet, that alone will be sufficient to determine that the pet is to remain with that party.  Things become complicated when multiple parties – such as a husband and wife or roommates each appear to have equal ownership claims.  For New York pet owners, the intriguing case of Raymond v. Lachmann answered this question (albeit not in the context of divorce) over a decade ago.  Raymond, a tort case, was decided in the “best interests” of Lovey, an elderly female cat.  In doing so, the court acknowledged the “cherished status accorded to pets in our society, the strong emotions engendered by disputes of this nature, and the limited ability of courts to resolve them satisfactorily.”  This standard is similar to the “best interests of the child” standard relied upon in cases of child custody.  However, New Yorkers do not yet have a matrimonial case to look to in which the custody of a pet was decided.

However, the same is not true in our neighboring state.  In 2009, in the case of Houseman v. Dare, a New Jersey judge ruled that a couple could have shared custody of their pet Pug.  Houseman addressed the notion that a pet is an object of affection and attachment, and is different from other types of personal property.