Approximately seven out of ten U.S. households own a pet. It has become increasingly common for pet parents to share a meal, trip, and even a bed with their furry children. While pets are being treated more like kids and less like a tangible good, family law statutes throughout the United States fail to treat a dog or a cat any different than a lamp when it comes to divorce. Courts have remained detached from hearing, ruling on, or enforcing pet custody and/or visitation arrangements. The household pet is simply another asset to be allocated.
Alaska may have been one of the last states to join the union, but it is the first to treat pets like family in the eyes of the law. On January 17, 2017, Alaska became the first state to enact pet custody legislation. While this is a quantum leap in and of itself, Alaska took things one step further by instructing the courts that pet custody disputes are to be decided based on what is in the best interests of the animal, rather than the interests of the parties to the divorce. Courts in years past were hesitant to become entangled in the fray of pet custody and visitation, but now Alaska has codified the court’s review of an animal’s welfare in family disputes. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has commended Alaska’s approach as being “groundbreaking”.
On January 1, 2018, Illinois recognized pet custody, and now Wisconsin legislators are discussing the prospect of enacting a similar law. The legal climate regarding how pets fit into the divorce schema is changing. Practitioners across the nation wait to see if Alaska’s approach will have a significant influence on divorce laws affecting pets throughout the nation.