Pet Custody Could Be Decided In Court

Pet ownership could get a lot more complicated under legislation proposed recently in the state Assembly.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-New York City, has proposed legislation that would require courts to consider the best interest of a companion animal following the dissolution of a marriage of legal separation of a couple. A. 10333 would would amend the state’s Domestic Relations Law by adding a new section.

The custody of a companion animal could be brought before a judge if the animal lives with two or more people in the same residence or dwelling, was purchased collectively by everyone who lived with the animal, if the animal was cared for collectively by everyone and if the animal has no lawful owner or lawful order of possession. Custody arrangements would not be limited to couples in a romantic relationship, as the proposed law defines joint tenants or co-tenants who are not in a domestic relationship or marriage with a fellow tenant in a dwelling.

“In cases of divorce or legal separation, courts must approve a custody agreement that is in the best interest of any children involved, in addition to splitting up shared property,” Rosenthal said in her legislative justification. “Arrangements involving children, including decisions regarding shared custody, visitation, and alimony, are always made with the children in mind to ensure the best possible outcome. … Disputes over custody of pets during a divorce or other legal separation of parties will continue to arise. It is important that the courts consider the best interest of the animal, regardless of ownership, when resolving disputes arising over custody.”

Similar legislation has not been proposed in the past. Companion legislation has not been proposed in the state Senate.

Rosenthal has also proposed A.10405, which would amend the state General Obligations Law to allow pet owners to seek damages for pain and suffering from a person who negligently or intentionally injured or killed their companion animal. The legislation has not been proposed before and no companion legislation has yet been introduced in the state Senate.

The bill would allow courts to consider evidence regarding the bond between a companion animal and the animal’s owner while deciding punitive damages in cases where an animal’s death or injury was unjustifiable.

“Despite being sentient beings, current law considers animals to be personal property,” Rosenthal wrote. “This legal shortcoming becomes particularly clear when a pet owner seeks legal recourse after their pet is intentionally or negligently harmed by the acts or omissions of another. When pet owners bring these lawsuits, they often find that they can only collect damages equal to the actual value of the animal, which may be no more than a few hundred dollars. People are unable to collect damages to cover the pain and suffering caused by the incident, to the animal or them.”

At the same time, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, has proposed legislation that would establish a one-year moratorium on euthanization of companion animals during the COVID-19 pandemic by any animal shelter, pound, humane society, animal protective association or other society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. A.10395 was introduced with several co-sponsors in the Assembly, though no companion legislation has been introduced in the state Senate.

The legislation would allow for a licensed veterinarian to certify in writing that euthanizing an animal is medically warranted.

Lentol wrote in his legislative justification that there has been a surge in pet fostering and adoption across country amid stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lentol said the Humane Society of the United States is warning there could be an increase in the numbers of pets surrendered as financial stresses mount, possibly leading to more pets being euthanized.

“Amid troubling reports of healthy pets being euthanized in shelters during this crisis, this legislation establishes a moratorium on euthanizing any companion animal during the COVID-19 outbreak for a period of one year unless a licensed veterinarian certifies in writing that humane euthanasia is medically warranted,” Lentol wrote. “During this crisis, when life has been disrupted and owners have been separated from their pets for many reasons, illness and death included, we must allow time for families to reunite with their pets. Failing that, we must allow time for pets to be fostered or adopted. New Yorkers are proving every day that they will work to protect all aspects of life, pets included.”


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