Who gets the dog in a divorce? Although pets are more like family than property, divorce courts have treated them like chattel. But in a new twist, Alaska changed its law to allow for pet custody rights.

As the Washington Post reports, although pet custody battles are often passionate and sometimes truly wacky, courts think of them more prosaically: as part of the “property distribution” in a divorce.

As of January 17, 2017, courts in Alaska will begin granting custody of pets when their humans divorce. This is a dramatic change, because four-legged family members are traditionally classified as “property.”

The amendment makes Alaska the first state in the country to require courts to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal” and to explicitly empower judges to assign joint custody of pets. In a blog post, the Animal Legal Defense Fund called the well-being provision “groundbreaking and unique.”

I’ve written about Florida and pets in divorces before. Your chocolate lab may be considered a member of the family to you, but under Florida law, “Brownie” is merely chattel – personal property to be divided in divorce. A judge lacks authority to grant custody or award visitation or a timesharing schedule to personal property.

As the Alaska amendment shows, there is a shift occurring in our society in which the pet is considered more a member of the family and becomes a part of the battle when the family disintegrates.

Some people argue that pets should stay with the children; others think they should remain with whoever purchased them, or whoever was their primary caretaker.

Often couples purchase pets with shared money, but rarely do people want to be “bought out” of their share of Fido, as might happen with a car or a house.

The Alaska amendment was sponsored by former representative Liz Vazquez (R) and the late representative Max Gruenberg, a Democrat and family lawyer who told the Associated Press in 2015 that he’d once handled a divorce that resulted in joint custody of a sled dog team.

The Alaska bill also allows courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders and requires the owners of pets seized in cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their shelter.

The Washington Post article is here.

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