In the eyes of the law, animals are property — family pets are no different than a TV, a minivan or a couch. For many people, however, pets are much more important than a piece of furniture, and the law might be catching up to popular sentiment.
In January, an amendment to Alaska’s divorce laws went into effect. The new law makes Alaska the first state to require that divorce courts consider the well-being of the animal when there is a dispute between the parties over who gets to keep the pet. The law also gives judges the power to assign joint custody of pets.
The author of the law said pets often are thought of as members of the family; many individuals have pets that they love as much as friends and family. The legislator said the law was written to reflect the will of the people and changing attitudes about the role of companion animals.
Would Judges Welcome Changes?
Authorities in animal law say the Alaska law change is groundbreaking.
This is the first time the legal status of companion animals has raised above the level of property, according to a Michigan State law professor who focuses on animal law. Alaska courts must consider what is best for the dog, not its owner.
It remains to be seen if the Alaska law will spur similar changes here in New Mexico and in other states, but legal observers say judges might welcome the clarity the legislation brings.
In recent years, courts nationwide have struggled with the idea that pets are property, according to an animal law authority in Oregon. Parties in some divorce proceedings have requested that judges make decisions on pet custody, visitation and even monetary support.
If you have questions about the possession of companion animals in divorce proceedings, contact an experienced family law attorney.