For millions of people, pets are more than just personal property, they're family. Despite the fact that under the law, a dog, or cat, or any animal is considered the same as any other personal item, courts are increasingly being asked to decide who gets custody of a divorcing couple's pet(s), or even to create custody or visitation schedules.
While many courts have balked at these tasks, and one Canadian judge made headlines for threatening to sell the pet at auction and split the proceeds, the state of Alaska's legislature saw an opportunity and took it. As part of a new law that took effect January 17, 2017, courts in Alaska are now required to consider an animal's well being when deciding who gets custody in a divorce. The law is a first of its kind in the country.
Alaska's New Law
Deciding who gets custody of a pet is not an easy task. Alaska's new law allows judges to essentially treat pets like children, and requires the pet's well-being to be considered even if the parties make an out of court agreement regarding who gets their pet. If the divorcing spouses cannot decide on their own who gets the pet, a judge will have objective criteria to help decide who should have custody. And if the judge can't decide, the law enables a judge to grant joint ownership of a pet.
While there are no specific factors laid out to be considered when a pet's well-being is accounted for, it seems like a simple enough question. Since each situation will be unique, couples may find themselves answering questions, such as:
- Will there be adequate space for the pet?
- Will the owner have sufficient time and resources to care for the pet?
- Does the pet get depressed or act aggressively when away from one of the spouses?
Doggy Restraining Orders
The new law was added as part of a bill that also provided protection for animals that live with someone who gets a domestic violence restraining order or is involved in a domestic violence incident. Now, a person trying to escape an abusive situation can have their pet included on a restraining order, as well as force their abuser to pay for the support of the pet as well (if the abuser has a legal obligation to provide support).
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