Divorce is rarely a pleasant thing. It's often met with anger and heartache, particularly when it comes to the dividing of assets and property. That notion is especially true when pets are in the picture.
John Culhane, a Professor of Law at Widener University School of Law, explains that the traditional approach to handling pet custody between a divorcing couple, "is to regard pets as property" and apply "all the usual rules." For instance, if one of the individuals owned the dog before entering into the marriage, that would be their "property," and therefore, he or she would get the dog in the divorce—no matter what the relationship to the animal.
But in Alaska, all that is about to change. As reported by the Animal Defense League, as of January 17, 2017, "Alaska has become the first state to empower judges to take into account the 'well-being of the animal' in custody disputes involving non-human family members."
It is the first law of its kind in the United States which "expressly require[s] courts to address the interests of companion animals when deciding how to assign ownership in divorce and dissolution proceedings." The law also takes joint ownership of the pet into consideration. It's a big step forward in how animals are seen in the eyes of the courts.
Penny Ellison, an adjunt professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, recently wrote an article for The Legal Intelligencer asking the very question, "Can Courts Consider the Interests of Animals?" In the article, she notes that in instances where both parties want to keep the family pet, "Alaska courts will now be taking evidence on issues like who took responsibility to care for the pet and the closeness of the bond the pet has with each 'parent' in determining what type of custody arrangement is in the best interests of the animal."
Ellison and Culhane both agree that other states are likely to follow in Alaska's footsteps, and should. "I think that the approach that is being [done] in Alaska—a provision in state law—really is the solution here," Culhane says, noting that people think of pets as much more than just property.
"Anyone who has had an animal knows, without question, that they have interests and preferences and, in general, the law does not recognize that at this point," Ellison tells petMD. "A first step could be simply permitting courts to enforce agreements between former spouses about living arrangements for family pets. As it stands, many states won't even take action if one party breaches an agreement like that. Where parties can't agree, I would hope that more states would allow courts to decide what is in the best interest of the animal."
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