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Pet Custody & Divorce: Colorado Needs Legislation for “Division” of the Family Pooch

The Harris Law Firm

Pet custody may be a newer phrase, but divorcing spouses throughout the country have been battling over the fate of their furry friends for decades. Like many matters of the law, things have changed in this arena, and more people are becoming aware of the need for legislation that better addresses what happens to pets when their “pet-parents” decide to divorce.

New Laws Lead the Way

When it comes to the family law courts in our country, pet custody is quite new. Here’s a timeline of what’s been happening:

  • A study from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported a 30% increase in divorce cases involving issues over custody of pets between the years 2009 and 2014. Experts credit much of this to various trends in American life and family law, including things like rising rates of Gray Divorce, millennials having fewer children than their parents or grandparents, and people treating pets much more like family than they did decades before.
  • While the AAML study saw a significant increase in pet custody issues during a 5-year period ending in 2014, it wasn’t until 2016 – when Alaska passed the first pet custody legislation of its type– that guidance for handling pets in divorce entered statutory law. Under Alaska’s pet custody law, courts are able to consider the well-being of pets in divorce proceedings, similar to how they consider a child’s best interests in custody matters.
  • Following Alaska, only two other states have passed pet custody laws. That includes Illinois (2017) and California, which passed legislation permitting judges to treat pets more like people (by considering what’s best for them) that took effect on the first of the year (2019). A measure currently pending in Pennsylvania would enact similar laws regarding how pets in divorce.

The fact that several states have passed pet custody laws, and that others are considering or proposing legislation to do the same, comes as no surprise. After all, our pets have become part of the family. What is surprising, and a big letdown for pet lovers, is that Colorado has yet to follow suit.

Pet Custody in Colorado

Like the overwhelming majority of states, Colorado has no pet custody law on its books.

Family courts here, like nearly all others throughout the country, have traditionally treated animals as “chattel” in divorce (personal property to be divided) – making them, in essence, no different than a car or another tangible asset. Even for animals with “special” value, such as a show dog, a race horse or breeding stud, or pets used in performances, many judges see no difference between Fido and a Ferrari, in the eyes of the law.

For pet owners, it’s all too clear why treating pets solely as personal property just isn’t right. Our pets provide unconditional love and an immense amount of joy and companionship. For a lot of folks, they are in no way the same as cars or tangible goods, or even other types of animals people may own for purposes other than companionship, such as sheep or cattle. As such, our pets’  role as members of the family unit should be taken into consideration during divorce, which is the purpose of legislation coming out of California and other progressive states in this area..

Protect Your Rights As a Pet Owner in Divorce

At The Harris Law Firm, we have seen a huge rise in litigation over family pets in Colorado – especially dogs. As pet lovers ourselves and proud supporters of organizations like the Evergreen Animal Protection League and Foothills Animal Shelter, we believe Colorado should follow California’s lead by passing sensible legislation to address the role of family pets in divorce. As Firm President Rich Harris notes:

“Colorado’s clumsy approach to handling pets in divorce is most unfortunate. It is time that we give family law judges the tools to recognize that the family pooch is different than a couch.”

Although the Rocky Mountain State may be without a pet custody law, pet owners concerned about protecting their relationships with their furry ones may still have options for reaching resolutions that work for everyone, and for Fido.   In a best case, the parties come up with sensible arrangements out of court so as not to “roll the dice” by litigating pet custody in front of a judge.  Such agreements often include sharing possession of pets or providing for pet for “visitation” after divorce, in much the same way parents would handle child custody and visitation.

Other options, such as prenuptial or post-nuptial agreements (or as some call them “puppynuptials”) could also be viable options for pet owners who want to protect their ownership rights in the event things don’t work out.

In any event, working with an experienced attorney can ensure you explore all available options, and pursue a resolution that’s right for you.

Have questions about divorce and pet custody in Colorado and how The Harris Law Firm can help? Contact us to speak with a pet-loving attorney.

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