Under a recent amendment to the family law code in Alaska, family court judges there will now be required to treat pets more like children and to consider the well-being of animals when making decisions about which spouse gets to keep the family's pets. The law is ground-breaking and is the first in the nation to require courts to consider the well-being of animals in divorce cases.
The law not only requires judges to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal,” it also authorizes judges to award joint custody of pets. In addition, the law allows judges to include pets in domestic violence protection orders.
“[The Alaska law] 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.” In an innovative law unlike that of any other state, Alaska divorce courts will now treat pets more like children. Brulliard, K. (2017, January 24).The Washington Post. Retrieved February 3, 2017, http://wpo.st/azbZ2
Alaska's new law allows judges to essentially treat pets like children, and requires the pet's well-being to be considered. If the divorcing spouses cannot decide on their own who gets the pet, a judge is required to make a decision and will have objective criteria to help decide who should have custody. The judge is also authorized to grant joint ownership of a pet.
In addition, the Alaska bill 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. The text of the new law, amending Chapter No. 60, SLA 2016, may be read here: Download Alaska_Animal_Law_(2017)
One issue that may arise is how joint custody (time-sharing) should be handled. Jennifer Keene, author of the book, We Can’t Stay Together for the Dogs: A Dog-Friendly Divorce and Break-up Guide, notes that there are several ways to split the time – but says that one of the best ways is to do a week-on/week-off or even a month-on/month-off schedule, which “usually gives each parent fairly equal time with the dog and is structured enough to allow the dog to develop a routine.”
Support (payment of veterinary bills, food and other supplies) may also be an issue. When called upon to defend a former spouse's motion to end dog support that ordered in a consent judgment of divorce, Rochester, Michigan family lawyer Elizabeth Sadowski filed a response, joined by "Bob, the Dog." The position advanced, referencing a child support case, was that support could not be linked to whether or not court-ordered visitation was being permitted. The document, which may be read here, caused quite a commotion in the local legal community. Download Sadowski. Answer to Motion Regarding Dog Support (PDF)