Pets in Divorce, Part 2 of 2

Part 1 of this two-part blog examined in detail a Canadian judge’s decision that explained why dogs cannot be treated as anything other than property in a divorce. This, being essentially the same state of the law in California, was proffered here in hopes that our readers could better understand why their beloved companions are treated this way in a divorce.

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However, if Part 1 had you feeling down about the status of pets in the law, the legislation examined here in part 2 should give you some hope! After I had already begun preparing blog Part 1 in this series, an amendment to Alaskan divorce legislation came into effect which signals a major step forward for pets owned by divorcing couples. Alaska has now become the first state to allow its courts to take a pet’s well-being into account when rendering a judgment for divorce!

More specifically, the Alaskan legislation that came into effect on January 17, 2017, states the following:

“(a) In a judgment in an action of divorce or action declaring a marriage void or at any time after judgment, the court may provide(…)

(5) if an animal is owned, for the ownership or joint ownership of the animal, considering the well-being of the animal.” (AS 25.24.160(a)).

Remember the example in Part 1, where the judge compared making custody orders of the family dog to making custody orders of the family butter knives? Well, Alaska’s new legislation, although still treating pets as property under the law, also recognizes that pets are inherently different from other property such as a butter knife or chair or any other inanimate object.

Although the Alaskan legislation would not allow for any type of custody or visitation orders for a family pet, it is still comforting to know that the pet does get some consideration by the judge. Here’s an example of when this would be important. Say there was a Husband and Wife. Husband bought a dog shortly before he married Wife. Then, during the marriage, Husband began ignoring the dog, would get extremely angry with the dog and at times resorted to corporal punishment when the dog did any little thing wrong. Wife, on the other hand, had taken up the care of the dog and the two had become completely bonded. Although Husband really doesn’t care about the dog, he and Wife are now getting divorced and Husband wants to keep the dog (presumably just because he knows how much it will hurt Wife if he does).

Under a legal system where a court could only look at the dog as property, the court couldn’t look at any of these facts. Instead, because Husband owned the dog prior to marriage, it is automatically presumed that the dog is Husband’s separate property and if there is a dispute, the court would have no choice other than to assign the dog to Husband. This, of course, is a scary result in the above example. Thankfully, Alaska’s new legislation would allow the judge to look at these facts and, despite the property ownership of the dog, the court would be allowed to award sole ownership to the Wife in the divorce.

This legislation, while not awarding animals the same rights that many pet owners would like, does offer some peace of mind in that it at least acknowledges animals as beings with interests and gives the court the authority to do what could ultimately save the animal’s life. This offers some kind of middle ground from the starkly contrasting decision outlined in Part 1. With hope, California and other states, will eventually follow in Alaska’s footsteps and make similar changes.

Please contact us if you are considering divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding child custody and visitation. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.

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