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

Eli, the In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot.
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.

Utter nonsense or common sense?

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

“I have never met an animal I didn’t like. On the other hand, there are plenty of people I hate.” – Me.

Anyone who has read these posts should know a few things about me by now. First, I love animals. Second, I have definite opinions about the law and related issues. Third, I am not shy about sharing them.

I mean come on, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve expressed my displeasure with the United States Supreme Court and the New York City police commissioner (among others).

So it may come as a surprise that I’m blogging about something that I actually agree with. Specifically, I am applauding Alaskan lawmakers who are trying to break with legal tradition by viewing pets as something other than personal property.

According to a recent KTUU report, state legislators are pondering a proposed rule that allows for the “protection” of pets when their caretakers are getting divorced or are embroiled in domestic violence.  If enacted, the law would:

  • Change the existing regulations so owners of animals confiscated due to neglect or cruelty would have to pay their cost of care through “bond or other security.”
  • Revise current  domestic violence measures to let courts include animals, and their temporary care, when issuing protective orders.
  • Tweak the divorce and marriage dissolution statutes now on the books so animals’ “well-being” is taken into account in court decisions regarding ownership or joint ownership.

“Pets are often considered part of a family and the courts should be able to consider their well-being,” said Rep. Liz Vazquez, who co-sponsored the bill. “This legislation will make it more difficult for a pet to be used by an abuser to keep a victim from reporting that abuse.”

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

Now from what I’ve read, some Alaskans — who are understandably more pragmatic about animals than those of us who live elsewhere — question the wisdom of this legislation. Apparently they believe other issues deserve a higher priority.

While I fully endorse the proposal, I also understand why some might question it. In particular, I understand why some might mock the idea that courts should be allowed to consider an animal’s “well-being.” Those most likely to do so are the types of people who question the extent of animal intelligence, scoff at the suggestion that the average dog or cat has any self-awareness and shudder at the application of human emotions to our pets.

Personally, I don’t know what goes on in the space between my cat’s ears. But here’s what I know for sure: Eli is smart, sensitive and loyal, among other things. To me he is much more than personal property. He is my best friend. And if anything, I “belong” to him.