Divorce Judge Considers Pet to Be 'More Than Property'

, New York Law Journal

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Two-and-a-half year old miniature dachshund named Joey.
Two-and-a-half year old miniature dachshund named Joey.

Divorcing spouses each fighting for ownership of their dog settled last week after a Manhattan civil court judge issued a decision suggesting household pets should be treated as more than property. Matrimonial lawyers say the case could help shape future disputes over canine custody in divorce proceedings.

In a Nov. 29 decision in Travis v. Murray, 208310/13, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper called for a one-day hearing to determine who would have final possession of the dog, a 2 1/2-year-old miniature dachshund named Joey. But before Cooper could set a hearing date, Shannon Travis and Trisha Murray agreed on Dec. 4 that Joey would go to Murray.

At issue was whether the dog should be treated as property, as is common in divorce cases involving pets, or whether ownership should be decided through the kind of legal analysis applied in child-custody cases.

"In a case such as this, where two spouses are battling over a dog they once possessed and raised together, a strict property analysis is neither desirable nor appropriate," Cooper wrote. "Although Joey the miniature dachshund is not a human being and cannot be treated as such, he is decidedly more than a piece of property, marital or otherwise."

Cooper laid out how he planned to decide the dog's ownership. The two women and their attorneys then used Cooper's step-by-step instructions to reach their confidential agreement.

Travis did not get visitation rights, for example, because Cooper said in his decision that such arrangements in child-custody cases are designed to keep both parents involved in the child's life and would "serve as an invitation for endless post-divorce litigation." Pets, while beloved to their owners, do not merit that level of importance, Cooper wrote.

While pets caught in divorce proceedings will likely continue to be treated as property for the foreseeable future, Cooper's recommendations could help negotiating ex-spouses decide who has the stronger claim to the pet, said Karen Platt, a matrimonial lawyer at Mayerson Abramowitz & Kahn who is not involved in the case.

"Even though this case isn't going to be decided by Judge Cooper, I can see people referencing his decision and trying to convince courts to apply this same standard in division of property cases concerning an animal," Platt said.

But no matter how strong the public sentiment toward treating animals as more than chattel, New York laws view pets as property to be split up between divorcing spouses, said Michael Stutman, a matrimonial lawyer with Mischon de Reya and president of the New York chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who also is not involved in this case.

"To do anything else, they'd have to pay dog support," Stutman said. "So to bring a matrimonial case and have it go to the dogs, so to speak, I don't think that's appropriate under the current statutory scheme."

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