Pet custody bill passes state Legislature

Custody of dogs and cats may soon be litigated in Family Courts around the state.

Both houses of the state Legislature have now passed A.5775/S.4248, which would require Family Courts to consider the best interest of companion animals when awarding possession of the animals in divorce or separation proceedings. The bill passed the Assembly 132-15, with Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, voting against. The Senate vote was 62-1 with Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, voting in favor.

Prior to the Assembly vote, the Assembly had voted on legislation to award attorney’s fees and expert witness fees in discrimination cases and to impose penalties and remedies, attorneys fees and reasonable expert fees in civil rights and human rights cases.

“From time to time we as a legislature get together and we put together a special day,” Goodell said. “We might be dealing with domestic violence or Earth Day or it might be involved with some other special interest. Today should be called the best interest of lawyers day.”

In her legislative justification, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-New York City, wrote that courts typically deal with pets in divorce proceedings as they do with personal property such as cars and furniture even though many families consider pets to be more equivalent to children. She said pets should be given more consideration by courts to ensure that they will be properly cared for after a divorce.

In January 2017, Alaska became the first state in the country to require courts to consider the welfare of household pets when determining custody of such pets in divorce proceedings. Glick’s bill had never made it out of the Judiciary Committee during the previous two sessions it was introduced.

“The intention is to simply change the way which we view companion animals in the event of a divorce or a separation that they are actual animals that there should be some thought given as opposed to them being viewed as just another piece of furniture.,” Glick said.

Goodell said Family Court judges currently ask the two pet owners and their lawyers to work out ownership of the pets during a divorce or separation, with the judge then making a final decision if the sides can’t agree. Most of the time, Goodell said, the sides are able to arrive at a conclusion on their own.

“So now we throw a great bone to my lawyer friends so that they can litigate over the best interest of the pet,” Goodell said before rhetorically laying out some of the court arguments Family Court judges could hear. “Who’s got a bigger yard? But, he comes to me when I call him. Yes, but he sleeps with you. Yes, but I feed him. Yes, but I take him to the vet. We’re going to do personality profiles, psychological personality profiles, which parent is better at pet management. We’re going to do a pet personality evaluation. Call in psychologists to talk to the pet. Cat whisperers. Open a subsequent review. And all it guarantees, by the way, is a large legal fee. So once again, at the risk of being disbarred, I’m opposing the special interest of lawyers bill as I have in prior years.”


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