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Who Keeps the Dog?


How Family Courts Handle Pet Custody

Most people who love their pets wouldn’t consider them a piece of property. They consider them a member of the family.

Now, divorce courts are beginning to do the same.

The question of “who gets the dog” (or cat, or bird, or even turtle) has always been settled in family law the same way as a couple’s property. But any animal lover would agree—our pets mean far more important to us than a couch, or a TV, or even a family heirloom.
Often times, one person in a divorce holds a stronger emotional tie to the family pet than the other. And, sadly, that emotional tie can be used as ammunition in a settlement. As the dog lover in the couple, you can’t put a price tag on your love for your “fur baby”—but you can imagine how a malicious partner might.

When a couple really thinks of their pets as members of the family, wouldn’t it be better for the court to view them that way as well? What if family court judges didn’t leave this important decision to be settled on like a piece of furniture, but instead, could ask the question, “What would be best for the animal?”

One state, Alaska, put a law into effect earlier this year that requires judges to ask exactly that.
Even though the Alaskan law was just passed, cases of pet custody have been on the rise for quite a while now. According to the New York Times, the U.S. has seen a 27% increase in pet-custody cases in the last five years alone. Such cases have granted shared custody, visitation, and even support.

Other states are starting to follow Alaska’s precedent. Rhode Island is attempting to pass a similar law, introducing new and specific guidelines to the bill. These include considerations such as which spouse took care of the animal most, who took it to the vet, and which partner’s lifestyle is best suited to pet ownership. That will make it harder for a spiteful spouse to use the innocent pet as a way to gain leverage in the divorce.

While the changing state laws are starting to make headway, many courts are still unwilling to consider pets with the same level of emotional importance as children. In those courts, the couple will have to work out a contract between themselves instead. But even if you live in Kentucky where pet custody laws are not yet written, creative arguments from lawyers and open-mindedness of judges are laying the groundwork for future case law.

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