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Gov. Hochul signs "pet custody" bill into law, goes into effect immediately

Pennsylvania Daily Life
Posted at 7:22 PM, Oct 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-01 23:26:04-04

NEW YORK (WKBW) — Pets are now allowed to be disputed for, in New York state's family court

On Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul signed Assembly Bill 5775/Senate Bill 4248, into law.

The goal of the bill, also known as the "pet custody bill" is to change the view we have on companion animals, in the event a divorce or separation takes place, instead of ruling them as marital property.

"An animal is not going to be able to voice any opinion here. We're left with potential experts, I would think," Michael Anthony Rossi, Esq., with The Rossi Law Firm said.

The bill states:

"THE POSSESSION OF A COMPANION ANIMAL, THE COURT SHALL CONSIDER THE BEST INTEREST OF SUCH ANIMAL. "COMPANION ANIMAL", AS USED IN THIS SUBPARAGRAPH, SHALL HAVE THE SAME MEANING AS IN SUBDIVISION FIVE OF SECTION THREE HUNDRED FIFTY OF THE AGRICULTURE AND MARKETS LAW;"

"The companion animal, which is described in the statute, if you look under the agricultural and markets law, that is any domesticated animal that talks about a dog or a cat, or any domesticated animal that is routinely kept into the house. It excludes farm animals," Rossi said.

Rossi is a divorce lawyer. For him, animal custody battles are nothing new.

"I have dealt with this situation a number of times before and I can tell you before, in those instances, we were able to fashion an agreement which resolved that issue rather than put the issue before the court, but now with the new legislation, there appears to be a standard for the court to follow so it does give us some guidance," Rossi said.

So, how do you convince a judge which spouse will take pet custody?

Rossi explained that lawyers will have to get creative in providing proof to present to the judge with proper documentation from, animal experts.

"Perhaps a veterinarian, an animal behavioralist or a trainer. There are animal psychologists. Those types of individuals may be able to determine the make up of the animal. Which party the animal is best with," he said. "Which party has always taken care of the animal, feeds the animal, is home with the animal. Who takes the dog for a walk."

Unfortunately, animal shelters are also caught in the middle of custody battles. In some cases, spouses send animals to the shelter.

Niagara County SPCA executive director, Amy Lewis said, "We often see a couple of surrenders a year for divorce. What we generally encounter is neither party actually wants to take custody of the animal and they end up surrendering to the SPCA. Also a few times a year, we'll have a spouse surrender an animal to the shelter without the other party's knowledge."

In the event that a spouse does the latter, the bill would call for ownership papers.

That is because in the state of New York, animals are still considered property.

"If the person does not have the legal authority to surrender the dog, then I would think that would be an issue that a court would be involved in. If the person owns the dog and then just surrenders the dog, I supposed at that point, you might have to get an order from the court trying to get the dog back from the SPCA or other agency, claiming that it's marital property, if it was an animal acquired during the marriage, even if it's in one party's name versus the other. If it's marital property, they may not have the authority to give the dog away," Rossi said.

The bill can mistakenly be seen as something comparable to a child custody. It is similar but lawyers have to get to each argument differently.

"The big difference is that the big custody dispute when you have a child, the child has an attorney appointed for the child. That attorney advocates for the child based on the attorney's investigations so there's a third attorney involved who is speaking for the child that can't necessarily speak for him or herself," Rossi said.

Pets cannot be interviewed, therefore, they do not need their own lawyer in custody disputes.

"Somebody that's advocating for the child isn't going to be advocating for the dog, I suspect," Rossi said."As much as people love their animals, under no circumstances should we compare the situation between a child and domestic animal."

The bill takes effect immediately.