Lawmakers want courts to decide animal custody in divorce cases

Tennessee lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allow courts to determine who gets custody of pets in divorce cases.

State Representative Caleb Hemmer and State Senator Jeff Yarbro, both Democrats, introduced HB0467/SB0568, an amendment to the state code to address animal “welfare.”

“The court may provide for the ownership or co-ownership of any domestic animal or
pet belonging to the parties, taking into account the welfare of the animal,” the bill states.

hemmer said Axios that pets are “like family” to many people. “It makes sense for the courts to treat them the same,” he said.

If passed, the law will come into force on July 1.

Tennessee is not the first state to propose such a law. Similar sites exist in Alaska, California, New York and Illinois. Washington, DC, is also considering a bill allowing judges to consider the best interests of animals and award joint custody in divorce cases.

Dogs from Harris County Pets animal shelter are displayed July 18, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Tennessee lawmakers are proposing a new law that would allow courts to determine custody of animals in divorce cases.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Celina Batlle is the founder and president of the Tennessee Chapter of the SPCA, a nonprofit organization that helps shelter and relocate animals in need. She said Newsweek she handles many pet custody issues in divorce cases.

“I believe both parties should be responsible for the animal because they both had it when they were married,” she said. “[Pets] are like children. Pets are part of the family.”

Batlle said she handles a lot of divorce cases, noting that she receives about 30 phone calls a day regarding these types of custody issues.

During a recent divorce, she said the wife took five of the couple’s dogs, leaving her ex-husband with one. Batlle said the man originally wanted to put the dog up for adoption, but changed his mind after speaking with Batlle. She said he texted her this morning saying he realized the animal was his responsibility.

Batlle thinks the state’s proposed bill could go further to ensure that the owner is indeed required to care for the animal. She said the court should also define the responsibilities of animal owners to ensure the animal is not abandoned.

“It’s not something you’re going to get rid of. [of]”, she said. “Just because your life changes, I think both parties should be responsible and decide who is going to take care of the animal and not be able to leave it at the shelter.

She said there were many animals in shelters due to “irresponsible owners”, resulting in many euthanasias due to lack of space. And if shelters don’t accept pets, Batlle said, the animals are “thrown out onto the streets.”

“I face a lot of cruelty,” she said.

Newsweek contacted the offices of Hemmer and Yarbro for comment.


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