Child Custody in North Carolina is based on which parent can best provide for the interests of the child. It is an oft repeated principle that ultimately decides the issue. Children are important and the court is required to scrutinize the parents in order to make this determination. It is so important that, if a custody order leaves out the final determination that a certain custodial schedule would serve the best interests of the child, it is typically immediately reversable. All that said, should pets get the same treatment?
We’ve previously written about California’s approach to pets and divorce. But now it is perhaps becoming a trend. New York has recently signed into law a provision that seeks to apply the familiar “best interests” standard assigned to children, to our “companion animals.” Companion animals are essentially defined as a domesticated house pet—meaning that farm animals are excluded (such as a cow). The new law mostly takes aim at cats and dogs. However, would a house pet teacup pig be considered under this law? What about an undomesticated pet like a sugar glider or a shark? Perhaps the legislature’s focus on a definition of pet was a mistake, because at heart pets give us a sense of purpose and companionship. Is it really the law’s role to define which animals do that? Or perhaps New York’s definitions allow some flexibility in their construction: “farm animals” are defined to be raised for commercial or subsistence purposes.
The case law will further establish the type of evidence and standard that would prove that one pet owner is the better suited owner under a “best interests” standard. It would likely be proved by who is/was the primary caretaker, who has the special skill to take care of the animal, who has the best accommodations and living conditions for said animal, and who can give the animal their best life. Will we have the classic movie moment where we release a dog in court and see who it runs to first?
With yet another jurisdiction creating a new law specifically about the dispensation of pets in divorce proceedings, is it now time for North Carolina to consider a similar law? The current law here puts pets under property division and is likely a mix between which owner can provide the better life and which owner has better proof of ownership. A law that sets a standard may be helpful considering that in 2012, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 36.5% of households owned a dog and 30.4% owned a cat.