photo courtesy of Sally Anderson Bruce

How Much Is That Doggie In The Living-room Window? The value of a pet in divorce.

A recent court decision in New York, Travis v. Murray, recognized the human animal bond in a more tangible way than ever before.  While reviewing a conflict over a pet in a divorce proceeding it discussed the value of that pet to the divorcing spouses.


In Travis v. Murray, Judge Matthew Cooper found that the argument before the court, involving two spouses battling over a dog they once possessed and raised together, couldn’t be held, “to a strict property analysis.” Judge Cooper did not find that the family pet was a human being, “but [it]is decidedly more than a piece of property marital or otherwise.”  Judge Cooper stopped short of giving the pet a higher status than the family Escalade or Ferrari.


Shannon Travis and Trisha Murray were a married couple that acquired Joey, a miniature dachshund, in happier times and before they were married. It is clear that the married couple, embroiled in this litigation, felt Joey was very important to them for different reasons.  If you are a married or unmarried couple with pets you may want to read the decision. Judge Cooper wrote a lovely 17-page decision you can view at:


In Travis v. Murray, Judge Cooper talked about how one-time “happy spouses” who are now divorcing ask the courts, “to decide what happens to the pet that each of the parties still loves and each of them still want,” in their lives.  He did a masterful job recognizing the emotions involved in this case.  He also spoke of limitations placed upon the court when asked to make decisions of this kind by the litigants.


Judge Cooper, recognizing the dilemma he and the ex’s found themselves in, ordered a hearing on the topic of, “who gets the dog?’”  He then limited the plaintiff and respondent’s use of this court ordered hearing to deciding the issue of sole custody.  The court would entertain no joint custody or visitation agreements.  He also refrained from using the best interest standard; rather he ordered the use of the Raymond v. Lachmann standard (264 AD2d 340 [1st Dept 1999]) of, “best for all concerned.”


Having a divorce court order a hearing on, “who gets the dog,” was a groundbreaking decision. It was also a heartbreaking decision, because in the hearing one ex-spouse loses all ownership rights to their beloved pet.  It makes clear the position of most courts in the land.  Though the family pet is no longer a chair, the court is not ready to support a non-property shared custody or visitation agreement for an animal.  Although the court recognized both exes’ loved and felt responsible for the pet as a family member, it rejected joint custody.  It required the complainants to decide who would get sole possession of the animal, just as they do for a chair, car or painting.


In Travis v. Murray, sole custody was given to Murray even before the hearing was conducted.  No additional agreements were entered into that would keep all parties abreast of the dog’s welfare.  The non-custodial Travis does not, at this time, have the opportunity to see Joey, offer to help with medical expenses or take over the care of Joey if needed.  Neither the court nor the divorce attorneys thought about putting a mechanism in place to alert the alternate pet parent if the possessing parent or pet fall on hard times and re-homing is needed.  These and other nightmares have been the experiences of pet owning ex-partners.


If you are currently in a relationship with a pet there are 4 easy steps you can take to assure you are ready for the care of your pet short and long-term post relationship.


The 4 steps are easy to remember:  PETS
P – Pre/Post Pet acquisition agreement.
People draw up agreements when money or property are involved.  Why not create a similar agreement when a beloved pet is at the crux of the conflict. You can include a visitation schedule, a right of first refusal if one party can no longer care for the pet and a stipulation for shared health information.
E – Engage in the pet conversation immediately upon acquiring the pet.
This is key. It will be in everyone’s best interest, especially the pets.
T – Take your time addressing the future custody of your pet.
Make sure you consider everyone’s time, cost and availability to care for the pet.
S – Solve for what is best for all concerned.
Put follow up mechanisms in place that will enable the parties to truly act in the, “best for all concerned.”
For the pets in your relationship, follow these 4 Easy Steps – PETS.  They provide for the pet’s future security and the people’s future peace of mind.
(CR) HLM – AIAACR  All Rights Reserved 2014

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