Divorce proceedings rarely go without a hitch. Besides the obvious toll it can take on your emotions, you also have to deal with the impact a separation can have on your assets and finances. The house, the car, the appliances, the couch—these are just some of the many things divorcing couples have to go over during property division.
But what about pets? While many Americans treat their dogs, cats, and other domestic animals as de facto members of the family, the law sees them as property. Any colorful “pet custody” battles you hear about on the media are simply part of property division proceedings.
However, that could all change, at least in Alaska, where divorce statutes now require the court to consider “the well-being of the animal,” explicitly empowering judges to assign joint custody of pets.
According to Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, animals’ place in society and families have evolved, so much so that many courts around the country struggle with the idea of pets simply being property. More and more divorcing couples are also asking courts to decide on custody, visitation, and even pet support—statutes normally associated with child custody battles.
“The relationship with the animal is what is important in the family law context, so the property law analysis tends to be a poor fit for resolving disputes, and in fact, many of the property settlement agreements are continuously disputed, making more work for the courts,” Hessler said.
For some people, pets should stay with the kids, while others believe animals should belong with the person that purchased them or served as their primary caretaker, which can be complicated if both spouses shared the cost of buying the pet.
The amendment comes after receiving bipartisan support in Alaska, largely thanks to its co-sponsors, Republican Liz Vazquez, and the late Democrat Max Gruenberg. Vazquez, who failed to get reelected in November, insisted that pets are family members, with Alaskans loving them as much as they love their family and friends. The late Gruenberg, on the other hand, was motivated to act on the matter after handling a divorce involving an entire sled dog team in Juneau.
The Alaska amendment sets an interesting precedent that other states could refer to when trying to pass similar legislation. The bill allows courts to include pets in protective orders against domestic violence, and requires owners to cover the cost of shelter for pets seized after neglect or cruelty.
Hessler hopes that the amendment helps to ignite a trend that the rest of the country will follow. “It makes more sense to address these issues at the legislative level to allow for public input and create rules that can be applied evenly to all citizens,” she said.
In Texas, decisions about the fate of domestic animals after a divorce ultimately fall to protocols around property division. With emotions running high, an animal companion can be especially helpful for managing your feelings.