The New York Times recently published an article addressing an issue that is close to the heart of pet owners across the country, namely, pet-custody rights in the event of a divorce or separation. The article notes that courts across the nation have treated family pets in varying fashions: some courts treating pets as personal property alone, while others have attempted to act in the best interests of the animals, awarding shared custody, visitation rights and even alimony payments to custodial pet parents.

In January of 2017, Alaska became the first state to enact “pet-custody legislation”, which explicitly allows matrimonial courts to take into consideration a pet’s well-being in issuing awards. The legislation defines an animal, as “vertebrate living creature not a human being.” The legislation also includes other protections for animals commonly enacted by states around the country including the addition of animal cruelty as an offense defined as “domestic violence.” Such classification allows a pet owner to petition a court for a protective order, and financial assistance, in the event that a member of the household commits an act of animal cruelty.

The Alaskan measure may be viewed as a step toward changing the legal status of pets from property, to something else, where pets would be granted certain legal rights and protections. Jeff Pierce, legislative counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is quoted in the article discussing the beneficial effect that the law in Alaska has not only in reducing potential conflicts in divorces, but also in drawing attention to pet-custody and wellbeing questions in general. Pet-custody legislation of this nature has the potential to increase litigation costs in divorce proceedings. For example, experts may have to be retained in order to determine how to actually consider a pet’s well-being in issuing an award.

For more detail about Pet-Custody legislation please see “When Couples Divorce, Who Gets to Keep the Dog? (or Cat.)” by Christopher Mele, published by the New York Times on March 23, 2017.