Ask anyone who has a dog if they consider their pet family, and you’ll most likely get a resounding “Yes!” I, for one, certainly feel that way about my dogs, Baxter and Brody. My kids think of them like brothers, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that my husband and I refer to ourselves as their “Mommy” and “Daddy.” Heck, the dogs even appear in our photo albums more than any of the humans in my family! And I’m not alone. According to U.S. pet ownership statistics, 99% of people consider their pets either companions or family members.
However, the law has always disagreed—dogs are, for all intents and purposes, property. So when a couple gets divorced, animals such as dogs are divvied up like the house, furniture, cars, and other inanimate objects. In fact, just a few months ago, a judge in Canada ruled that dogs are property and shouldn’t be considered children. Justice Richard Danyliuk of the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan wrote in his ruling, “After all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.” At one point, he even compared dogs to butter knifes. Seriously.
Yet it looks like the tides are finally changing.
Alaska has issued a new amendment regarding divorce statues, making it the first state in the United States to require courts to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal” and to explicitly empower judges to assign joint custody of pets.
Lawyers and animal advocates applaud this decision.
“It’s about time that a state recognizes animals as family members and recognizes the emotional relationships with animals,” says Christine L. Garcia, an animal law attorney in San Francisco. “Viewing animals as property wasn’t working because courts would absolve people of wrongdoing to animals because ‘they are just animals.’ Also, even though property law is supposed to apply, courts don’t have a true handle on how to apply it to animals, so they slip around and rule however they feel. In other words, if Alaska is codifying the recognition of animals as family, it’s a wonderful step in the right direction for animals.”
Mark Unger, a dog-loving Family Law and Divorce Lawyer in San Antonio, Texas agrees. “I think pets are so much a part of the family, that the law should at least take certain factors into consideration,” he says. Two factors, he says, might include whether one party owned the dog for the vast amount of time in the family or if it was a gift. Also, there’s a question that if kids are involved and, say, living primarily with one parent would giving the other parent full custody of the dog harm the stability of both the children and the dog. Another consideration: If the dog has significant monetary value in any way for the family.
Meanwhile, Liz Vasquez, a U.S. Representative for Alaska and the bill’s sponsor, explained her thought process behind the groundbreaking decision: “Pets are truly members of our families. We care for them as more than just property. As such, the courts should grant them more consideration. It’s only natural.”
Bottom line: This decision in Alaska is a first and important step toward protecting animals and helping families going through a divorce to determine custody. Stay tuned for updates regarding this matter.