Bill leaves pet custody up to judge, if couple gets divorced

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Divorce can be messy, but it’s not always about who gets the house or the kids, sometimes, it’s about who gets the pets.

One New Mexico lawmaker wants to change how judges make that decision. Regardless of veterinary records or any other records regarding an animal, in a divorce a judge would be able to decide who owns the pet if House Bill 448 is passed.

“A dog knows who he likes most of all, so for adults to just be fighting over it, is ridiculous,” said Steve Syers, an Albuquerque resident and service dog owner.

One of the five lawmakers behind the bill said pets should not automatically go to the person whose name is on the pet’s papers or the vet bills.

“It will be a judge who decides who can consider, who’s really been the caregiver of the animal, is closest to it,” said Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces, who is heading up the bill.

Don Harris, an attorney in Albuquerque that specializes in divorce, has seen his fair share of custody battles over pets.

“A companion animal can often times substitute for the role of a child,” said Harris.

In 2009, his client Matt Forslund made headlines not once, but three times. He took his ex-girlfriend to court after she ran off to the Midwest and took his Great Dane “Diesel” with her.

“It was amazing, because both of these parties spent thousands and thousands of dollars fighting over the custody of a dog,” said Harris.

He said he told his client to save his money, and get another dog.

“He took out his checkbook, it wasn’t even an issue for him, he didn’t care, he viewed the animal as his son,” he said.

Harris won the case and his client got his dog back, reuniting a bond that was clearly worth a whole lot more than a big check.

“I think a broader issue is that the legislature is recognizing how emotional pets are to people,” said Harris.

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