Most people understand that pets mean much more to families than a piece of furniture. But when it comes to deciding who gets a pet in a divorce, the majority of state laws include pets right along with the rest of a couples' personal property to be divided.
The reality is that most people view their pets as members of the family. Many family law attorneys and judges acknowledge and consider that pets rare like family to a lot of people. However, their hands are tied as until recently, there were no laws in any state to support a finding based on the well-being of the pets or the consideration of their place in the family, as opposed to a finding based on property distribution laws. Many judges would use applicable laws to determine the "worth" of a pet that each party believed was immeasurable. The worth was often limited to either the replacement value or the initial cost to acquire the animal.
A few states are seeing a push for laws that provide for a consideration of what is best for a particular pet. Alaska enacted the first law of its kind in animal and family law allowing for courts to consider the well-being of the pet in decisions. A similar bill was recently introduced in Rhode Island as well. The Alaska law and other proposed legislation addressing animal "custody" considerations, was praised by animal rights groups as a positive sign of progress.
Without laws supporting consideration of the emotional attachment of the parties and the well-being of the pets, judges are free to disregard these factors. By providing a framework to make these decisions, courts will have the ability to consider the best interests of animal family members and make better pet-focused decisions.
In the meantime, there are ways to protect your animal family members. You can establish a pet trust in your will, designating sufficient funds to care for your pets after your death, designating their care-providers and providing for their medical and general welfare needs.
In the event of a divorce or other change in family structure, if you cannot resolve how to share the care of your animal family members, you can agree to use arbitration as a method to resolve pet related disputes. A court cannot order this approach as only the parties can agree to use a standard that considers the "best interests" of the animal family member. The process is very efficient and you and your pets can obtain a thoughtful resolution.
Littman Family Law is a dog-friendly office. Most days, Kai, our Border Collie, is at work to greet you and help you feel welcome.