Dogs are often referred to as man’s best friend, but what about considering them as family? Alaska has officially ruled that pets can be considered family members in divorce proceedings, which has brought pet custody to light in their courts.
Legislation signed by Alaska Governor Bill Walker in October became effective on January 17, 2017. The legislation added key amendments to Alaska’s divorce laws that have serious significance not only for animal welfare, but for human health and safety measures as well.
Animals are typically seen as property in terms of the law. In fact, some couples have even fought the court on that matter in the past. One well-publicized Canadian divorce judge even went so far as to threaten to sell a couple’s dog if they couldn’t make a decision about custody. The judge argued that the dog “enjoys no familial rights.”
But Alaska’s new amendments are designed to prevent that discussion from needing to happen. Instead of a judge being able to treat an animal the same way they would a piece of furniture or another asset, they must take “the well-being of the animal” under consideration when making custody decisions.
In addition to those provisions, the law also created the opportunity for couples to opt for joint custody of a pet. While only about 1% of civil lawsuits go to the federal courts today, custody is still a major issue debated in divorce.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has pointed out that any judge in the U.S. can already take animal welfare into consideration, but it’s currently an issue that is up to the judge’s discretion. With its new laws put into effect, Alaska is the first state that now requires all judges to take the animal’s well-being into account during divorce proceedings.
Another of the new amendments protects animals who are involved in domestic violence cases. This amendment allows courts to include pets in restraining orders and requires abusers to pay support for pets in victims’ care. Alaska is one of 31 other states who have such laws regarding pets in domestic violence situations.
The state has been praised by multiple organizations for their new amendments. The ALDF even went so far as to call the bill “groundbreaking and unique.”
Rep. Liz Vasquez, who sponsored the bill, explained that pets are cared for as more than property, and as such “the courts should grant them more consideration.”