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.

Legal view on pets is actually changing…slowly

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Historically, the law has taken a pragmatic view of animals. Legally they’re not viewed as pets or companions or family members. Legally, animals are property. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.

This archaic philosophy — for lack of a better word — is still reflected in Connecticut law. As the Connecticut Humane Society notes, the state’s legal definition of animals includes “all brute creatures and birds.” Under CGS §53-247(a), criminal activity includes “overdriving, overloading, overworking, torturing, depriving of substance, mutilating, cruelly beating or killing, or unjustifiably injuring any animal.”

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

Judging by the language quoted above, the law can be traced to a time when most animals were literally “beasts of burden.” Fortunately a lot has changed since then. And the law is finally changing, too.

I’ve often blogged about one of the most significant developments — a law that permits the appointment of special advocates for animals in some cases. The law took effect here earlier this month.

As New London, CT, attorney Kean Zimmerman recently told The Connecticut Law Tribune, the passage of “Desmond’s Law” is a significant step in the right direction. But it’s just the beginning.

“Connecticut laws have not made the leap to consider pets more than property, but slowly judges and legislators are seemingly beginning to acknowledge the many intrinsic values pets have. This is especially true when it comes to a dissolution in which the ‘property’ cannot be divided,” Zimmerman said.

Meanwhile, divorce lawyers find themselves in search of creative solutions in cases where the parties don’t agree on what to do with the family pet(s).

“I’ve had parties agree that the family dog would go back and forth with the kids. I’ve had parties agree on financial contributions for the care of a pet,” New Haven attorney Renee Bauer told the Tribune.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund also offers tips for divorcing couples at odds over the family pet.

“Since animals are considered property in the eyes of the law, it may be helpful to offer proof that you were the one who adopted the animal, or if the animal was purchased, that you were the one who purchased the animal,” the organization recommends.

The person didn’t adopt or purchase the animal may still be able to show that he or she should continue to care for the animal, according to the ALDF. Relevant proof may include:

  • Receipts for veterinary care, licensing records.
  • Receipts for grooming, dog training classes, food, and other items purchased for the companion animal.

“If your neighbors saw that you were always the one who walked your dog or took him/her to the park, they may be useful witnesses who can confirm your consistent interaction with the animal and therefore be helpful to your case.”

Utter nonsense or common sense?

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“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.