Two-and-a-half year old miniature dachshund named Joey.
Two-and-a-half year old miniature dachshund named Joey. (Courtesy of Sherri Donovan)

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.”

In his Nov. 29 ruling, Cooper said that people who love their dogs almost always love them forever. “But with divorce rates at record highs, the same cannot always be said for those who marry,” he said.

Travis bought Joey from a pet store in 2011. She and Murray married in October 2012 and lived with Joey in their Manhattan apartment.

In June 2013, while Travis was away on a business trip, Murray moved out and took Joey with her. She told Travis she lost the dog on a walk in Central Park.

Travis filed for divorce in July. She filed a motion demanding “sole residential custody” of Joey two months later and accused Murray of stealing him. She argued Joey was her property because she was the one who purchased him.

Murray then let Travis know the dog had been living in Freeport, Maine, with her mother. In court papers, Murray claimed the dog belonged to her because Travis gave her Joey as a gift in exchange for giving up her cat. Murray also said she “attended to all of Joey’s emotional, practical and logistical needs” and that the dog slept closest to her side of the bed.

Cooper said his determination would be based on what is “best for all concerned.” That would have required the parties to show who bore the most responsibility for Joey’s care and who spent more time with him on a daily basis.

Such a standard falls short of that applied in child custody cases, where the court must determine what is in the child’s “best interest.” Child-custody cases typically require appointment of an attorney for the child and a forensic evaluation to determine where the child belongs.

“Best interest” factors such as the dog’s “feelings and happiness,” Cooper wrote, “are, for the most part, unascertainable when the subject is an animal rather than a human.” And in any event, conducting a full forensic analysis on a canine would be an “unthinkable” drain on judicial resources.

Cooper pointed to several cases in which courts have looked at household pets as more than property. For example, the “best for all concerned” standard he hoped to apply in Travis v. Murray was first used in a 1999 case, Raymond v. Lachmann, 264 AD2d 340. There the Appellate Division, First Department, ruled that an aging cat, Lovey, should remain in the home where it had “lived, prospered, loved and [had] been loved for the past four years.” That decision is relevant to Joey’s case, Cooper wrote, because it took the cat’s well-being into consideration.

“We hope this will set the standard for the future,” said Murray’s attorney, Sherri Donovan of Sherri Donovan & Associates. “Though they settled, I’m pleased with the decision because I thought it recognized the sensitivity of the pet’s needs and the parties’ attachment to the pet and recognized the dog is not just an inanimate object.”

Travis was represented by family and matrimonial lawyer Rhonda Panken. She declined to comment on the settlement, citing her client’s request for privacy.