In the eyes of the law, pets are considered personal property. That is to say, they’re looked at no differently than furniture or tools.
But adding complexity to that legal status is a recent amendment to Alaska’s divorce law. The state has become the first in the country to require courts to take into consideration “the well-being of the animal” in custody disputes involving nonhuman family members.
Gov. Bill Walker signed HB 147 in October 2016, and it became effective Jan. 17. It is the first law in the nation to specifically require courts to address the interests of companion animals when deciding how to assign ownership in divorce and dissolution proceedings. It is also the first to allow joint custody of a pet.
In a blog post, the Animal Legal Defense Fund called the provision requiring consideration of animals’ well-being when deciding their legal ownership “groundbreaking and unique.”
“Even though judges throughout the U.S. can already choose, in their discretion, to consider an animal’s best interests, no other state legislature has required judges to do so when adjudicating property distribution upon the dissolution of a marriage,” the Jan. 20 post read.
Because animals are classified as personal property under the law, courts typically resolve these disputes on the basis of the property status of the animal. Essentially, the judge decides who is the more rightful owner. The ALDF said that although judges are not mandated by state legislatures to consider an animal’s well-being or treat the animal differently from other property that must be fairly divided after dissolution of a marriage, a handful of cases have acknowledged that people have a special relationship with their companion animals that sets pets apart from other types of property.
However, it remains to be seen whether other states will adopt similar legislation. In addition, some court cases in recent years have attempted to change the long-standing legal precedent of animals as personal property but failed. One case in Texas involved the owners of a wrongfully euthanized dog who tried to recover “sentimental” or “intrinsic” damages for the loss of the pet. The state’s Supreme Court in 2013 reversed a controversial ruling by a state appellate court that would have allowed noneconomic damages and would have essentially changed the legal status of pets.
The Alaska amendment was sponsored by former Rep. Liz Vazquez, who has been an assistant attorney general, prosecutor, and administrative law judge, and the late Rep. Max Gruenberg, who was a family lawyer.
The new amendments in HB 147 also make Alaska the 32nd state to allow courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders and require the owners of pets seized in cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their shelter, according to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University.
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