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In a first, Alaska divorce courts will now treat pets more like children

By KARIN BRULLIARD | The Washington Post | Published: January 24, 2017

Divorces can be messy. Leaving aside the very raw emotions involved, there is the matter of splitting property.

Who gets the house? Who gets the couch? Who gets the dog?

If one of those items seems different to you, that's probably because you, like many Americans, consider pets to be more like family members than furniture. But courts do not. In the eyes of the law, animals are property. So while pet custody battles are often passionate and sometimes truly wacky, courts think of them more prosaically: as part of the "property distribution" in a divorce.

That's why an amendment to Alaska's divorce statutes, which took effect last week, is making waves in the world of animal law. It makes Alaska the first state in the country to require courts to take "into consideration the well-being of the animal" and to explicitly empower judges to assign joint custody over pets. In a blog post, the Animal Legal Defense Fund called the well-being provision "groundbreaking and unique."

"It is significant," said David Favre, a Michigan State University law professor who specializes in animal law. "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."

As animals' social status has evolved, courts across the country have struggled with the pets-as-property idea, said Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. The parties involved often want decisions on custody, visitation and even monetary support for a pet, she said. But existing statues that guide such matters are designed to address children, not animals (which some courts think is just fine, at least in Canada).

Some people argue that pets should stay with the children; others think they should remain with whoever purchased them, or whoever was their primary caretaker. Often couples purchase pets with shared funds, but rarely do people want to be "bought out" of their share in Fido, as might happen with a car or a house, Hessler said.

"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.

The Alaska amendment was sponsored by former representative Liz Vazquez (R) and the late Rep. Max Gruenberg, a Democrat and family law attorney who told the Associated Press in 2015 that he'd once handled a divorce that resulted in joint custody of a sled dog team.

"Our pets are members of our families," Vazquez, who lost her bid for re-election in November, said in a statement last year. "We have to remember that we're sent here to Juneau to represent people; real human beings, many of whom have pets they love as much as their friends and family."

The Alaska bill also allows courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders and requires the owners of pets seized in cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their shelter.

"I hope it is the beginning of an explicit trend," Hessler said of the well-being provision. "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."
 

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