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Divorce and pets: New York bill introduced for pet custody

Custody disputes aren't just for couples with children. Fights over pets can quickly evolve into dramatic battles during a divorce.

Courts see pets as property, for the most part. Recently, though, some advocacy groups and state legislators are starting to promote the idea that the courts need to ensure the best interests of these beloved creatures.

There have been instances where courts have awarded visitation, shared custody and even alimony payments over pets. About 15 years ago, states began to allow people to leave trusts or estates to care for Fido and Fluffy.

A highly-publicized case in San Diego over a pointer-greyhound mix resulted in a two-year, $150,000-legal fee court battle. A "bonding study" was actually conducted -- and was actually ordered by the court. A videotape showing how the dog spent time with the wife was released and the wife eventually ended up with sole custody of the dog in 2000.

Attorneys with the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers who took part in a survey in 2014 reported that cases involving pet custody had increased 27 percent. Twenty percent of those that took the survey reported that judges had listed a pet as an asset during a divorce.

It's not all about cats and dogs, either. Exotic pets have also become involved in disputes, including a 130-pound turtle, a python and an African grey parrot.

Alaska has enacted legislation regarding pet custody. That legislation allows the courts to consider the pet's well-being. It took effect in January. In New York's maritime neighboring state of Rhode Island, a state representative has introduced a bill similar to Alaska's.

Judges do have discretion when it comes to looking out for the well-being of a pet. The Animal Legal Defense Fund's legislative counsel said that there is a split view held by the legal system on how animals should be treated. On the one hand, pets are personal property, and yet there are also laws that prohibit animal cruelty.

For those that are contemplating divorce and have pets in the middle of the issues, the guidance of an attorney can help. He or she can help you arrive at an agreement with your soon-to-be ex as to who should get custody of your pet and who should be allowed visitation.

Source: The New York Times, "When Couples Divorce, Who Gets to Keep the Dog? (Or Cat.)," Christopher Mele, March 23, 2017

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