Most of us consider our pets to be members of our family. Many couples, particularly those without human children, think of their dogs and cats as their "furbabies." Deciding who gets custody of them in a divorce can be one of the most combative and emotional aspects of the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the law has not generally caught up with Americans' increasing attachment to their pets. In divorce proceedings, they're considered property to be divided along with homes, artwork, cars and sailboats. Judges aren't required to consider what's in the best interests of the four-legged family members as they are with children.

New Law Considers "the Well-Being of the Animal

Now Alaska lawmakers are out to change that -- at least in their state. New legislation just took effect there that requires courts to consider "the well-being of the animal" when deciding custody and visitation issues. Alaska is the first state to pass legislation that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has called "groundbreaking and unique."

Others in the animal law community applaud the change in the law. As the head of Lewis and Clark College's Animal Law Clinic noted, "The relationship with the animal is what is important in the family law context, so the property law analysis tends to be a poor fit for resolving disputes." In fact, one of the sponsors of the amendment is a family law attorney who says that he once handled a divorce case where the couple got joint custody of a sled dog team.

Law Also Helps Provide Protection from Domestic Violence

The new law also helps protects animals from domestic violence. Beloved pets too often become victims of an abusive spouse who threatens to harm -- or does harm -- their spouse's pet as an act of control or retaliation. Now in Alaska, pets can be included in domestic violence protective orders.

One law professor says that the new law helps ensure "that a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property -- that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners."

People in any state who find themselves at odds with an estranged spouse over
custody and visitation of a family pet should discuss the matter with their attorney. He or she can help build a case to persuade the court to let your animals continue to be part of your life.