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What happens to pets in divorce?

Alaska families have strong attachments to their pets, and the long winters can be much more comfortable with a companion animal in the home. But challenging issues of social isolation and work-from-home necessities of the past couple of years have caused many couples to choose the path of divorce. What becomes of their faithful friend when this happens?

Juneau residents who love their pets want what is best for them, and decisions that affect their wellbeing will be a priority at this time. It is important to understand the unusual aspects of animal law that may come up during the divorce proceedings, as well as legal issues unique to Alaska.

How does divorce affect pet ownership in Alaska?

Pets have historically fallen into the category of legal things rather than legal persons, and thus the law generally treats them as property. But even so, the animal cruelty laws that exist in all 50 states show a recognition under the law that animals are living beings and deserving of care for their physical and mental wellbeing.

In divorce cases, until recently the courts would usually look at which spouse paid the most for the food, vet bills, or registration for the animal and then award the animal to them as part of property division, regardless of the emotional attachment to the other may feel toward the pet.

Alaska is now one of three states along with Illinois and California that treats pets in a similar way to child custody issues. Under HB 147, signed into law in 2016, the court considers the wellbeing of the animal when determining whether it is in the best interests of the pet to award ownership rights to one spouse or both in joint ownership.

Does it make sense to fight over a pet?

In the middle of heated divorce proceedings, everything, from alimony and support payments to who has a closer bond with the family dog, will be a source of contention. But divorcing couples may want to consider the cost of fighting over Fido in court, and whether all of these strong emotions are in the best interests of their pet.

Being civil can go a long way toward resolving such painful conflicts. Some solutions that can facilitate pet-sharing include:

  • Writing up an agreement with specifics on the care and management of the animal’s needs, and how each side will accommodate pet-sharing.
  • Including a weekly schedule for the custody arrangement.
  • Specifying who will make important medical decisions.
  • Suggesting mediation to resolve conflicts that may come up over the pet-sharing arrangement.

Considering how the breakup will affect everyone, including the pets, can provide an incentive to resolve conflicts as both sides move past the divorce.