In Alaska, Divorce Courts Must Now Consider Pet Wellbeing

It's the first state to adopt this law.

This month, Alaska became the first state in which judges are required to consider animal welfare in cases where divorcing couples have a pet.

Legislation signed by Gov. Bill Walker (I) in October, which became effective Jan. 17, adds amendments to the state’s divorce laws that have major implications not only for animal welfare, but for the health and safety of human beings as well.

Generally, animals are considered property under the law. But Alaska’s new amendments mean that a judge cannot simply regard a pet in a divorce case the same way they would a table or a chair, and instead must take “the well-being of the animal” into consideration when making decisions, The Washington Post reports. The law also makes legal joint custody of a pet an option.

Though pets are generally considered property under divorce laws, most people do not see their pets as the same as furniture.
John Lund via Getty Images
Though pets are generally considered property under divorce laws, most people do not see their pets as the same as furniture.

As the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) points out, judges across the U.S. can already choose to consider an animal’s wellbeing in a divorce case — but it’s up to their discretion. Alaska is the first state to codify into law that judges must consider the welfare of the animal involved, and is the first to “explicitly allow joint ownership of a companion animal.”

The law is in stark contrast to a Canadian judge’s ruling in a widely publicized divorce case in December. In that case, the judge ruled that a dog “enjoys no familial rights” and threatened to order a couple’s dog sold to the highest bidder if they couldn’t make up their minds about who would get custody.

Another new amendment to Alaska law protects pets in domestic violence cases, allowing courts to include animals in restraining orders and requiring abusers to pay support to their victims for pets in their care. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, between 25 and 40 percent of domestic violence victims choose not to leave a dangerous situation out of fear for their pets. Thirty-one other states have domestic violence laws on animals similar to the one Alaska just adopted, according to the ALDF.

The organization praised Alaska for both new amendments, calling the law surrounding divorce proceedings “groundbreaking and unique.”

Rep. Liz Vasquez, who sponsored the bill, touted it last year as simply being common sense, given the relationship people have with their pets.

“Pets are truly members of our families,” she said in a statement. “We care for them as more than just property. As such, the courts should grant them more consideration. It’s only natural.”

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