Divorce and Euthanizing the Family Pet

A New York court recently had to decide whether euthanizing the family pet without the knowledge or consent of the other parent during a divorce action violated a New York status quo order. To answer that question, the court had to first determine if the family dog was a marital asset to be distributed or a matter of custody and visitation.

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Cruel and Unusual?

The divorce was in May of this year. The Husband argued that the Wife vindictively violated an Automatic Order by putting their beloved family pet dog “B.” to death without reason, necessity or justification.

“B.” was their emotional support dog, and B.’s custody had not been determined. The Husband testified the Wife did not discuss B.’s medical condition or even give him an opportunity to spend time with B. before putting the dog down. As a result, he suffered extreme emotional distress over their dog’s death. The Husband asked for compensation for this loss in the amount of $1,500 as punitive damages and filed for contempt of court.

The Wife, on the other hand, argued that after the husband returned to the house with the police, he did not take the dog. The Wife also argued that the Husband’s pet was not an emotional support animal, could not even walk without a severe limp, had “too many” masses to count, and was on significant pain medication.

She also argued that she was given a prescription for a tranquilizer for the dog, transported the dog to the Vet, and the dog lunged at the Vet. Because of that, it was the Vet who recommended euthanasia.

The Husband responded that the family dog was adopted from a shelter, and that he was the dog’s sole caregiver. He denied that he was informed of the pet’s conditions, that she had the dog euthanized without his knowledge and consent. He argued that there was no urgent need for B.’s euthanasia.

Florida Pet Custody

I’ve written on the development of pet custody cases and statutes around the country before. Pet custody cases are becoming more and more prevalent as lawmakers promote the notion that the legal system should act in the best interests of animals. This is due, in part, because pet ownership has increased.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 36.5% of American households owned a dog and 30.4% owned a cat in 2012. As many of these households know, companion animals usually become members of the family.

Florida doesn’t have pet custody or visitation laws. Florida courts are already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of children.

Not all states have ruled out a visitation schedule for dogs like Florida. For instance, while Texas also views dogs as personal property, in one case a Texas court authorized visitation. A new California law changed the way pet custody is handled in divorce cases. The law gives judges the power to consider the care and the best interest of the pet when making decisions.

It’s Up to You New York

The Court reviewed the text of the Automatic Orders which state that neither party can sell, transfer, encumber, conceal, or in any way dispose of, without the consent of the other party in writing, or by order of the court, any property except in the usual course of business, for customary and usual household expenses or for reasonable attorney’s fees in connection with this action.

New York Automatic Orders are codified by a statute which is devoid of any reference to companion animals. Companion animals are not listed, nor provided in, the text of the Automatic Orders. The text of the statute only proscribes the disposition of property.

Additionally, the purpose of the law was to preserve the financial status quo of the parties. It accomplishes that goal by preventing a party in a divorce from dissipating assets in order to deprive a spouse of the property which may have monetary value.

New York statutes include pets in the equitable distribution of property section, but they also are part of the best interests analysis. Questions naturally come to mind. Was it the intent of the Legislature to continue to treat animals as property? Given that the drafters of the statute failed to include any definition – or guidance – as to how courts are supposed to determine “best interests” of animals, the Court is effectively left in a legal vortex to figure it out on its own.

The Court reasoned that the intent of the Legislature was to shift away from treating companion animals as property and ensure that they are given more consideration. Viewed in this way, the husband’s motion sounded punitive in nature, which is the antithesis of an application seeking an adjudication of civil contempt.

Additionally, even if the Court were inclined to find the Wife in contempt of court, the amount of the fine would be limited to $250. The husband had not proved the actual value of his loss of the dog and had not shown that actual loss or injury had been caused.

The court held that the euthanasia of B. the pet dog did not constitute a violation of the Automatic Orders even though the euthanasia was performed without a court order or agreement.

The opinion is here.