I recently read an interesting article in The Huffington Post about changes to Alaska’s divorce laws, requiring judges to consider a pet’s well-being in allocating animals in a divorce. These amendments became effective last month, making Alaska the first and only state to impose such a requirement.
Any pet-owner who has gone through a divorce in New Jersey may have been shocked to learn that under the law, animals are treated no differently than other personal property. Deciding which spouse gets to keep the family pet is no different than determining who is keeping the wedding china or the living room sectional. Because of this, pets frequently become a significant and emotional issue in a divorce.
Alaska is now the only state to make a legal distinction between pets and other personal property. The amended law requires judges to take into consideration “the well-being of the animal” and also makes joint custody an option. Exactly how the judge will ascertain what is in the animal’s best interest remains unclear. It reminds me of a novel I once read, “Lawyer for the Dog” by Lee Robinson, a fictional writing about a lawyer who is appointed guardian ad litem for a miniature schnauzer, whose divorcing owners were bitterly feuding over his ownership. Whether the Alaska courts will need to go to such lengths to adjudicate the ownership of pets remains to be seen. It is likely that, at a minimum, the courts will need to hear testimony as to the animal’s well-being before making a decision.
As the article points out, judges across the country can already voluntarily take into account an animal’s well-being in determining ownership, but most states’ laws do not require them to do so. Alaska’s amendments may mark a changing trend toward mandating that such inquiries be made before awarding ownership of a family pet to one spouse over another. Until then, litigants should remember that the majority of divorces settle out of court, without a judge deciding these kinds of issues. Accordingly, parties can always negotiate their arrangement for family pets, and even craft an agreement which contemplates joint ownership. For now, however, if a court needs to decide these issues, New Jersey law remains unchanged.
Katherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the Family Law Practice Group of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP and a contributor to the Riker Danzig Family Law Blog. Katherine’s interest in family law stems from a desire to help others while navigating a difficult process, and she brings a high level of compassion and zeal to her practice. Katherine is a resident in the Morristown, New Jersey office and can be reached at 973-451-8445 or firstname.lastname@example.org.