Lawmakers Want Courts to Decide Pet Custody After Man Loses Dog in Divorce

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

State Representative Caleb Hemmer and State Senator Jeff Yarbro, both Democrats, introduced HB0467/SB0568, an amendment to state code, aiming to take animals' "well-being" into account.

"The court may provide for the ownership or joint ownership of any pet or
companion animal owned by the parties, taking into consideration the well-being of the animal," the bill states.

Hemmer told Axios that pets are "like family members" for many people. "It only makes sense for courts to treat them the same way," he said.

According to Axios, the lawmakers were inspiring to draft the bill after a constituent, Tim Shrum, began researching the issue after he lost custody of his family's dog during a divorce.

If passed, the law would go into effect July 1.

Tennessee is not the first state to propose such a law. Similar ones exist in Alaska, California, New York and Illinois. Washington, D.C., is also considering a bill to allow judges to consider the best interest of the animals and award joint custody in a divorce.

Pet Custody Law Tennessee
Dogs at the Harris County Pets animal shelter are shown on July 18, 2022, in Houston, Texas. Tennessee lawmakers are proposing a new law that would allow courts to determine pet custody in divorce cases. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Celina Batlle is founder and president of the Tennessee chapter of the SPCA, a nonprofit organization that helps shelter and re-home animals in need. She told Newsweek she deals with a lot of pet custody issues in divorce cases.

"I believe that both parties should be responsible for the pet because they both got it when they were married," she said. "[Pets] are like children. Animals are part of the family."

Batlle said she deals with many divorce cases, noting that she gets about 30 phone calls a day regarding these types of custody issues.

In a recent divorce, she said the woman took five of the couple's dog, leaving her ex-husband with one. Batlle said the man initially 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 pet is his responsibility.

Batlle thinks the proposed state bill could go further to ensure the owner is actually required to take care of the pet. She said the court should also outline what responsibilities the pet owners have to ensure the animal is not abandoned.

"It's not an object you're just going to dispose [of]," she said. "Just because your life is changing, I think both parties should be responsible and decide who is going to be in charge of the animal and not be able to leave it at the shelter."

She said there are many animals in shelters because of "irresponsible owners," leading to a lot of euthanasia due to a lack of space. And if shelters won't take pets, Batlle said, animals are "dumped on the street."

"I deal with a lot of cruelty," she said.

Newsweek has reached out to the offices of Hemmer and Yarbro for comment.