Pets Are People, Too!

Pets Are People, Too! by Joshua Katz

{4:30 minutes to read} “Decidedly more than a piece of property”—pet owners would categorically agree that their pets are indeed family.

In a recent decision in the case of Travis v. Murray, Judge Matthew Cooper of Manhattan said that Joey, a mini Dachshund, was “decidedly more than a piece of property,” allowing for a brief best interest hearing to determine custody of the family dog post-divorce.

The hearing determines which “parent” will provide a better home environment for the dog and be more apt to allow the other “parent” the ability to foster a continued relationship with Joey. 

Judge Cooper’s ruling established a “best-for-all-concerned” standard—a hybrid between the way in which the courts determine the best interests of children and the division of property in divorce cases.

The Hybrid View & How It Came to Be

The traditional view of pets as property—no different from a couch or TV set to be divided in a divorce—has evolved over the last several decades.

Historically, the emotional aspect of pet ownership was not considered—any reported decisions about dogs involved the replacement cost if a dog was killed by a car or a negligent veterinarian. The cases dealt with the monetary component, i.e., the fair market value of the dog.

This view started to change in 1979 with the case of Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, Inc. As a result of this case, a hybrid treatment of a pet was first recognized in New York. In Corso, a veterinarian wrongfully disposed of pet remains and attempted to cover up his mistake. Ultimately, the court held that “a pet is not just a thing, but occupies a special place somewhere between a person and a piece of property.”

Judge Cooper relied upon this holding in Corso to find authority for this new standard, which he applied to pet custody of Joey, the Daschund.

In addition to New York, other states, including Alabama, Alaska, Wisconsin, Texas, and Vermont, have recognized pets as more than property. There continue to be other states, particularly Florida, that still treat pets strictly as property.

Implications for the Courts

Despite granting a pseudo best interests hearing for Joey, Judge Cooper would not go as far as to set a visitation schedule or parenting plan for the dog.

Currently, the current court system is congested with custody and parenting cases. It is unlikely that courts will allow too much time for pet-related concerns; however, the way in which pets are handled in divorce cases may continue to evolve.

Perhaps the court will create special pet magistrates to make custody-related determinations so as not to overload matrimonial dockets more.

The Significance of This Case

Fifteen years ago, I was involved in a divorce case where the “mother” was awarded the family’s elderly mutt after the trial. Despite the ruling, the “father” refused to turn over the dog, resulting in post-divorce litigation.

In the aftermath, a new judge ultimately awarded the dog to the couple’s son—who had absolutely no standing in the case.

As one can imagine, this led to an appeal. After a tremendous amount of emotional stress and financial loss, the dog passed away before the appellate division rendered its decision.

Clearly, pet custody is an important issue that is beginning to get the attention that it deserves. After all, pets are people, too, and are an important part of our families!

If you would like to discuss your pet and custody-related issues, please contact us to explore how we may be of assistance to you and your beloved furry family member.

Plaine & Katz, LLP
80-02 Kew Gardens Rd.
Suite # 1050
Kew Gardens, NY 11415

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *