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Could Massachusetts divorces soon involve pet visitation rights?

Divorcing Massachusetts couples have a lot of issues to consider, from spousal support to child custody to property division. With an increasing number of courts awarding visitation rights and even alimony for pets, yet another item to add to that list of typical divorce concerns may soon be pet custody. Indeed, a 2014 survey indicated an increase of 27 percent in cases of pet custody battles over the preceding five years.

Traditionally, pets have been treated like property in divorce courts. Judges have long determined pet ownership in a similar manner as they would address the division of personal property, figuring out the financial value of each piece and determining who got what according to shared marital property and division agreements. However, proponents of this new approach to pet custody legislation point out that pets have always been a bit of a legal grey area. While the law lumps animals into the same category of possessions as, say, furniture or vehicles, there are laws prohibiting cruelty to animals, and obviously, no such laws exist to protect the rights of a couch, for example.

In recent years, an increasing number of couples have fewer or no offspring and tend to view their pets as family members, even surrogate children. Indeed, advocates of the legislation point out that fighting over pets during a divorce can get emotional and messy, with one party using the beloved animal as retribution, or to gain leverage against an ex in divorce proceedings. While Alaska was the first state to enact legislation regulating the custody of pets, the practice is quickly spreading through a number of other states as well.

Other states already have or may soon be introducing bills dealing with pet custody during divorce. Many of these bills ask the courts to consider, not just ownership of the pet, but rather the animal's own well-being and best interests. While the original legislation was apparently intended to reduce conflicts in divorce, it has garnered attention to the issues of animal rights as well. Massachusetts couples concerned with pet visitation rights, custody and support payments may do well to contact an experienced divorce attorney to discuss these issues and how this changing legislation may affect them.

Source: globalanimal.org, "Who Keeps The Pet Dog Or Cat After Divorce?", Alisa Manzelli, March 27, 2017

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