Fido and Kitty could soon have the same legal rights in divorce court as their owners’ actual kids.
A bill awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature would require a judge to consider the “best interest” of a pet before awarding custody to either side in a contentious marital split.
“Animals are still considered property in New York, but one person is probably better suited to be the final owner,” Long Island divorce lawyer Michele Olsen said.
Olsen, who supports the measure, said that under existing case law, judges generally base their rulings on receipts showing who bought the critter and paid for food, toys and visits to the vet.
In some cases, the decision can even hinge on who has a nicer home — with a house and yard beating out a studio apartment, she said.
Olsen also described a case she handled in which a divorcing couple had two dogs — a Maltese and a Maltipoo — that they agreed to share, only to wind up back in court.
“Once my client started dating someone, the ex-wife didn’t like it,” Olsen said.
“She decided that she was going to get back at him by using the animals.”
State Sen. James Skoufis (D-Newburgh), the chief sponsor of the bill, said it would make sure pets aren’t treated simply as assets to be divvied up on a spreadsheet.
“Someone’s cat or someone’s dog is a part of their family and should not be treated like a piece of furniture or their Honda Civic during a divorce,” said Skoufis, who owns a cat named “Ruth” after the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The bill overwhelmingly passed both houses of the state legislature in May, with the Assembly voting 142-15 and the Senate voting 62-1.
One of the “No” votes was cast by Assemblyman Mark Walczyk (R-Watertown), who said, “This is a classic trial lawyer bill and it really just allows attorneys to waste more time in the courts in what are already ugly and difficult situations.”
“There is absolutely nothing that prevents a judge from considering the welfare of an animal right now,” he said.
“This just requires the attorneys to spend more time with the clients in billable hours.”
Ultimately, Walczyk said, the bill would only help “whoever has the bigger purse to spend on attorney time.”
If the pending legislation is signed into law, New York would join states including California, Illinois and Alaska that have prioritized pets’ well-being amid matrimonial disputes.
The bill covers not only dogs and cats but any “any other domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household” but it specifically excludes farm animals and animals raised to be eaten or sold.
Manhattan divorce lawyer Adam Citron said that pets are “constantly an issue” in the cases he handles and recommends that couples sign prenuptial — or “petnup” — agreements to avoid emotional and bitter battles should their marriages fail.
Animal behaviorist Karis Nafte, who began working as a pet-custody specialist two years ago, said that shared custody or visitation schedules are often stressful for animals and can lead to behavioral problems.
Nafte — who’s based in South Africa and runs a global, web-based consulting company — also said that resolving issues involving pets at the start of divorce proceedings often makes the whole process run more smoothly.
“Part of what I try to help people understand is that even if a dog feels like a child in your heart, it isn’t, and if you’re treating it like a child, it’s actually a disservice to the dog,” she said.
“A lot of times, people just don’t know what to do. They just don’t want to say goodbye to their dog.”
Philip Tedeschi, director emeritus of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, also said the stress of divorce on humans has “impacts on the emotional and health lives of animals.”
“We’re really largely lagging behind in recognition that non-human animals have emotional lives, have feelings. Even opinions,” he said.
Cuomo — who owns a Northern Inuit dog named “Captain” and has a webpage listing the pet-related legislation he’s approved — hasn’t yet signaled whether he’ll sign the proposed change to New York’s divorce law.
A spokesman for the governor didn’t immediately return a request for comment on Monday.
With Post wires