Recently, Christopher Mele of the New York Times wrote an article cataloging how pets have come to be heavily contested aspects in divorce proceedings. Pets are most commonly viewed as personal property in domestic cases, but as of late that trend is shifting.
Mele details the story of a dog by the name of Gigi, who made national headlines due to her owners’ contentious battle over her custody. The couple went to court over this issue in a matter that was litigated for over two years, incurred more than $150,000 in legal fees, and included a court ordered “bonding study” in order for animal behaviorists to observe Gigi with her owners.
Animals have undoubtedly become a large part of society and states are beginning to reflect the concerns of pet owners. According to the National Pet Owners Survey, in 2009, 62% of households in the U.S. had a pet and the pet industry was worth $45.4 billion. In the last 5 years alone, there has been a 27% increase in pet custody cases according to a 2014 survey produced by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Additionally, 20% of survey respondents noted that judges’ rulings considered pets as assets in a divorce. As many as 32 states have passed laws that provide for protection of pets in cases of domestic violence, but now states have begun expanding the way pets are viewed by enacting pet-custody legislation. Alaska was the first state to successfully pass such legislation in January of 2016 with a measure that defines animals as a “vertebrate living creature not a human being,” and allows the court to consider the animal’s well-being when ruling.
These numbers and trends underscore the emotional investment individuals place in animals. We may see more pet-custody legislation in the future.