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Divorce: is it a dog's life?

For many people, their relationships are the most important things in their lives. For some California residents, the bonds with beloved family pets may feel stronger than those with their spouses. When one begins to consider divorce it can be distressing to find that, in law, pets are treated as property rather than members of the family.

As it can be with children, so too can the discussion over pets become emotional and heated. Even if the pet was brought into the marriage by one of the spouses, the other spouse may still have formed a strong attachment to the animal. If the pet has a long-term medical condition that requires ongoing treatment, there may be a requirement to share the financial burden of this jointly. Where the pet was brought into the family during the marriage, a request for joint custody may also be on the table.

Alaska has become the first state to amend laws relating to divorce and the welfare of pets. These amendments require the courts to consider the best interest of the pet and not just the wishes of the owners. If the pet has a particular bond with any children of the marriage, for example, it could mean that the pet would be awarded to the custodial parent. In addition, companion animals can also be protected under domestic violence orders, and owners whose pets are seized in cases of neglect or cruelty are required to pay for the costs associated with sheltering those animals.

It remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a trend which will eventually reach California. Couples who are going through divorce where pets are involved may still agree between themselves on issues relating to custody, visitation and financial maintenance. Considering the animal's welfare and putting that at the forefront of discussions is the kindest and most responsible thing that one may do.

Source: The Washington Post, "In a first, Alaska divorce courts will now treat pets more like children", Karin Brulliard, Jan. 24, 2017

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