Courts beginning to view pets as more than property

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When it comes to an animal’s status under U.S. law, there seems to be little, if any room for debate. Legally, an animal is property… and that’s that. Or is it?

According to recent reports, a recent change to Alaskan divorce laws may herald a significant shift in the way courts treat our pets — or more accurately, how they decide who gets custody of the pet(s) when a marriage ends.

Alaskan divorce courts are now the first in the country where courts must consider “the well-being of the animal” while determining custody. The amendment to the state’s divorce laws also permit judges to order joint custody of the pet(s).

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In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot Eli catching up on the latest news. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

“It is significant,” David Favre, a Michigan State University law professor who specializes in animal law, told The Washington Post. “For the first time, a state has specifically said that a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property — that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a staunch advocate of such measures, concurs.

“Even though judges throughout the US can already choose, in their discretion, to consider an animal’s best interests, no other state legislature has required judges to do so when adjudicating property distribution upon the dissolution of a marriage,” the organization said in a recent blog.

And to the lawmaker who sponsored the bill, it’s simply common sense. As long as people think of their pets as family, the courts should treat them accordingly, she says.

“Pets are truly members of our families,” Rep. Liz Vasquez says. We care for them as more than just property. As such, the courts should grant them more consideration. It’s only natural.”

Additional changes to Alaska laws that just took effect “allow companion animals to be included in domestic violence protective orders, and permits a court to order that the abuser pay financial support for a pet in the care of the human victim, if that abuser has a legal obligation to care for the pet.”

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