Animals are Family Too

Seth Victor

          This past week I attended the 2010 New Jersey State Bar Association Annual Meeting and Convention in Atlantic City. I had a very enjoyable time, and while I think part of holding the event in Atlantic City is to entice lawyers to come and make a holiday of it, I was there strictly to attend the seminars (and maybe have some fried oreos on the boardwalk). The lectures did not disappoint. My Thursday started at 8:00am. I know of no law school courses that are scheduled for 8:00am because no student, or law professor, wants to be thinking critically that early. When, however, you have an intriguing discussion awaiting you with some of the top names in animal law, you find ways to perk up. Thus I found myself in “Animal are Family Too,” sponsored by the NJ Animal Law Committee.   

          Elenora Benz, Esq. of Benz & Reading LLC started our discussion. Ms. Benz is essentially the founder of New Jersey animal trust law. She briefly went over NJSA 3B:11-38, the guiding statute on creating a trust for companion animals, and then proceeded to explain what it meant. Trusts for companion animals are limited to the life of the pet, or for 21 years, which ever is shorter. They can be for specific pets, or for any animals that survive their owner. There are many things to consider in creating such a trust, like who will be the trustee, and who will be the caregiver. These are separate people, and to avoid conflicts, neither should be the executrix/executor. Special considerations for an animal’s individual needs are important to contemplate, such as leaving enough money for horse surgery, which is a minimum of $5,000 just to walk into a clinic in this state. Trusts for animals are odd in that your animals are still property under the law, and legally you are essentially leaving property/assets to care for property. Recognizing this, NJ courts unfortunately have the right to reduce the amount left in animal trust if they are challenged. The court has complete discretion, and is not bound by any factors to weigh in making such a determination.

          Karen Scheiner, Esq. touched on how prenuptial agreements affect animals, and how formal written agreements regarding the ownership of animals is as crucial as allocating other “property.” The unusual aspect to consider here is whether the animal has bonded with a particular party in the divorce, or a child. Although we as animal rights advocates understand that animals form critical, important relationships with people and places, the courts turn a blind eye to these considerations, and deal strictly with the terms of the prenup language. Thus while considering animals in prenups is a good step, they are not regarded the same way that children are in a divorce.

          Gina Calogero, Esq., further developed this topice. She talked about Housman v. Dare, 966 A.2d. 24 (2009), in which the court held that animals are not fungible items. When a couple does split, if there is not a prenup, the dynamics of the family situation should be considered in determining where the dog goes. This “property” cannot simply be split down the middle.

          Last to present was Sherry Ramsey, Esq., manager of Animal Cruelty Prosecutions with HSUS. Ms. Ramsey lead a very enlightening discussion on how animals often bear the brunt of domestic violence, and how restraining orders can be shaped to include safety for these animals. I was not shocked to learn that people who abuse their families abuse animals as well, but I was horrified to hear some of the stories of how abusive husbands torture beloved pets in order to force their spouses to do what they want them to do (it goes both ways, but it is no secret that males are the majority of the abusers). Some quick facts:

– Studies indicate that 48.8%-71% of battered women report that pets had been threatened, harmed, or killed by their partners.

– 48% of victims delayed seeking safety out of concern for pets’ welfare. 65% if the pets had already been abused.

          Thirteen states have laws that permit listing pets in protection orders, including Connecticut and New York. New Jersey is currently working on getting bill A-1633 passed, which would achieve the same goal. Currently animal protection in domestic abuse situations in NJ can be achieved by getting “specific property disposition.” Ironically, being property actually gets animals rights, in a round about way. These laws are not perfect, and Ms. Ramsey commented that New York’s is particularly weak. Still, it’s something, especially considering how prevalent this kind of abuse must be when these are only the reported cases.

          Overall the talk was incredibly informative and eye-opening. I’m happy to report that there are some very passionate and intelligent people working in the animal rights field in New Jersey, and I am reminded that even in the face of all that is bleak in the animal rights world, where there is compassion, there is hope.

One Response

  1. […] end up protecting the lives of people.” In acknowledging the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, a relationship of which many people are not aware, Mr. Cooper illustrates how animal protection […]

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