If you know me, you know I’m a fervent pet lover. We have dogs, cats, horses, goats, and are related to someone with a bearded dragon. I know, viscerally, how pets can feel like family members. As a result, they can be incredibly important to someone in the middle of a divorce. I also know, as does anyone who has befriended an animal, that animals have needs, wants and opinions of their own. However, the law has been pretty clear that pets are considered property, like a chair or lamp, during a divorce.
The ownership (homing) of a pet can be a hot-button issue in high conflict divorce cases. I’ve had many cases through the years where pets were at issue. If there are kids, it often makes sense for the pet to stay with the children. As we come to a more egalitarian parenting world, where kids are splitting time almost equally, this decision is not going to be as simple. In cases where there are no kids or the kids are grown, companionship of the critters can loom larger. Judges don’t seem to like being asked to make this decision. In fact, they can become quite annoyed if you ask them to. A way to avoid this is to have the parties agree to arbitrate the decision of the pet’s future.
In cases where spousal abuse was evident, pet ownership is a little more clear. I was thrilled when in 2012 the Legislature amended the domestic violence law to allow victims to retrieve and keep their pets. That was a recognition both that the pets are important to the victims of domestic violence and that the pets themselves often are subsidiary victims of the same abuser.
It was fascinating to learn that Alaska has just modified their divorce law to make two changes about the status of pets. Overall, pets will now be considered more like children than like couches. The first change is similar to the Massachusetts domestic violence statute mentioned above. The second change is intriguing. It mandates that if animals are owned, the court must take “into consideration the well being of the animals” in both agreements and litigation.
This is just one state, and obviously not Massachusetts, but there may well be something similar in the future here. I can see a lot of folks taking up a career in determining what is in the animal’s best interest.