This month Alaska enacted groundbreaking amendments establishing how they would address family pets in a divorce proceeding. Prior to January, states across the country deemed the family pet as property - no different than a piece of furniture. While courts could entertain the well-being of the family pet, it was up to the sole discretion of the Judge. As of January 17, 2017, Alaska is the first state to require the Judge to consider the well-being or best interest of the pet. This amendment also allows for the court to award joint-custody of a pet. Therefore, a court can set forth a similar custody arrangement one would find with a minor child. While some may think that the custody of a pet is trivial by comparison of the custody of a child, according to a 2002 survey by American Pet Products, 73% of dog owners and 65% of cat owners consider their pets to be like a child or family member. This is especially true of those families without children wherein the pet becomes a child substitute.
Unfortunately, the Colorado court still treats pets like property and it is in the judge’s discretion to review their well-being in making a determination as to which party will retain the pet post-divorce. The owner of the pet is usually the party that has title of the pet. Therefore, in cases where the pet was obtained prior to the marriage, that party will leave the marriage with the pet. However, in cases where the pet was purchased during the marriage, the determination of who should get the pet becomes more complicated. Unlike Alaska, Colorado courts will not order joint-custody of a pet unless there is agreement of both parties. If the parties are unable to agree, the majority of courts will assign a monetary fair market value to the pet and do an offset to the party who does not receive the pet. Pets are usually assigned a value between $0.00- $1,000.00. In many cases, if there are minor children in the family, the pet is usually placed with the primary caretaker of the children. When a Court does entertain the best interest of the pet argument, they often consider how often the pet was walked, conflicts that might arise between other pets or children, and/or which party is most capable of showing affection to the pet.
Along with the Court considering the well-being of pets in divorce actions, Alaska also enacted an amendment requiring the Court to make orders related to the care of a pet in domestic violence cases. This amendment also gives the Court authority to require the alleged abuser to pay support to the victim for the care of the pet during the pendency of the domestic violence case. There are 31 other states, including Colorado, which will enter orders related to the care of a pet during domestic violence cases. This is important because studies have shown a strong correlation between animal abuse and family violence. Animal abuse is considered a warning sign that an individual is developing a pattern of seeking power and control through abuse of others. Often pet-owning women entering battered women’s shelters report that their abuser has injured, maimed, killed, or threatened the family pet for revenge or psychological control. For these reasons, many victims remain in abusive situations in order to prevent abuse to their pets.
Please contact the Domestic Team at Feldmann Nagel Margulis for all of your Family Law needs.