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Divorce and your pets: how the law is changing

The emotional upheaval of divorce usually makes the proceeding more than a financial transaction. If you and your spouse have children, child custody and support matters may be the most important things to you to resolve.

Even if you do not have children or if your kids are grown, you could have a beloved dog, cat or other pet living with you. New York divorce law treats pets differently than children, as do almost all other states -- but the law may be slowly recognizing how important our pets are to most of us.

Changing laws

Traditionally, divorce courts have treated pets as chattel, or personal property. Thus, if the parties to a divorce cannot work out who gets to keep the pet, the court will step in and make the decision the same way it would for furniture or a painting.

As The New York Times recently reported, in January, Alaska became the first state in the U.S. to allow family law courts to consider a pet's well-being in divorce disputes. This brings treatment of pets in divorce closer to child custody law. A lawmaker in Rhode Island has proposed similar legislation for her state.

More and more pet custody cases

Meanwhile, pet disputes have increasingly affected divorce cases across the country. The Times article refers to a 2014 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which revealed a 27 percent increase in pet custody cases over the previous five years.

Clearly, many divorcing people care about their pets and want to continue taking care of them. Other times, people try to use their ex's affection for the family cat or dog as leverage to drag out the proceedings and get "revenge."

While divorce can be complicated, your love for your pets matters. To protect your pets and reach a fair result in your divorce, you need an experienced divorce attorney on your side.

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