Rhode Island might follow Alaska’s lead on pet custody

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A few months back, Alaska became the first state where courts are instructed to consider the pet’s well-being in divorce cases in which custody is an issue.

The question then became, which state or states, would follow suit.  And the answer is… Rhode Island.

Of course, it’s not a done deal, yet. But if everything goes according to plan, it will be.

Rhode Island’s pet custody bill

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

As proposed, an Act Relating to Domestic Relations — Pets — Custody, would amend existing state laws by adding a new section pertaining to the custody of pets. It specifically directs courts to “consider the best interests of the animal” when “awarding possession of a domestic animal in a divorce or separation proceeding.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Rhode Island State Rep. Charlene Lima, recently told The New York Times that she planned to “introduce specific guidelines to be considered, such as which spouse most cared for the animal and took it to the vet, and whose lifestyle was best suited to pet ownership.”

Lima added that she hopes the measure, if passed, will help protect innocent animals from human vindictiveness.

“A lot of time I think it’s used as retribution,” Ms. Lima told The New York Times. “People can get really vicious in divorces, and using emotional attachment to a pet is something they can use to gain leverage.”

When people are at their worst, pets lose

If the findings of a 2014 survey cited in The New York Times article are any indication, Lima’s assessment is right on target.

More than a quarter of the participants in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) survey acknowledged “an increase in the number of couples who have fought over the custody of a pet during the past five years.”

More than 20 percent of the participants “said that courts are more frequently allowing pet custody cases,” and 20 percent acknowledged “an increase in courts deeming pets to be an asset during a divorce.”

As Maria Cognetti, president of the AAML at the time, noted, “far too many spouses attempt to initiate these disputes as a negotiating strategy, often believing that they can use the animal as a kind of bargaining chip.  This tactic is usually not effective and can come back to ‘bite’ the antagonist throughout the divorce process.”

In other words, don’t try to make your dog, cat or any other pet a pawn in your divorce. Because there’s no law in Rhode Island… yet. And if you don’t live in Alaska, the court doesn’t have to take your pet’s best interests into account. Legally, it can just treat your pet like any other piece of personal property. And if that’s the case, you won’t like the outcome. And your pet will pay the price.

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