Cats and dogs are more than pets. For many, they are a part of the family. According to Slate.com, more than half of surveyed dog owners consider themselves a “pet parent.” This practice has gone so far in becoming a social norm that the term “fur baby” was added to the Oxford Dictionary as a reference to dogs, cats, and other furry pet animals during 2015.
“Fur babies” can be just as important to pet parents as human children are to parents. When parents decide to divorce, the child custody plan can be one of the most crucial points of the separation. For pet parents, custody of the family pet can be just as important.
Unlike children, pets are considered property in the eyes of the law. The pet’s ownership may be decided during property distribution rather than a custody agreement that would be set up for children. However, one state recently enacted a law that treats pets like children during a divorce.
Washington Post reported that during January 2017, Alaska passed an amendment to its divorce statues in favor of pet parents. The amendment requires courts to “take into consideration the well-being of the animal” during the dissolution of a marriage. This law -the first of its kind- is a big victory for pet parents who want to ensure their dog or cat lives in a loving and caring home after the separation.
David Favre, a Michigan State University law professor who specializes in animal law told the post, “For the first time, a state has specifically said that a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property — that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners.”
During March 2017, a similar bill was introduced in Rhode Island, New York Times reported. Charlene Lima, a member of the RI State House of Representatives introduced a bill stating a judge “shall consider the best interest of the animal during a divorce or separation.” The bill has not yet been passed.
Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon told the Washington Post that she believes the relationship with the animal is what’s important and that the property law analysis tends to be a poor fit for resolving disputes. She advised it can even make things more complicated for the courts.
This situation is not uncommon. While there may be a lack of pet custody laws, there is no shortage of pet parents seeking to establish pet custody. According to a 2014 American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers survey , family law attorneys saw a 27% increase in pet-custody cases compared to the five previous years. Twenty percent of respondents cited an increase in cases in which the judge had deemed the pet an asset during the divorce.
Couples considering divorce can be faced with a conundrum when it comes to custody agreements and deciding what is best for their children on pets. Families considering a divorce or legal separation should consult with an experienced divorce lawyer to discuss their rights and options.