Divorce can be a difficult and emotionally draining process for any family, but this can be particularly true when a couple has pets. It can be heartbreaking to think about being separated from a beloved pet. Even though pets are still legally considered personal property in California, people's affection for their pets often goes far beyond what we think of as the relations of property and California law has shifted to reflect this. Many people feel for their pets a love and affection that is akin to family, which makes "dividing" pets as marital property seem like a particularly messy - even perverse - prospect.
California Law Regarding Pets and Divorce
In 2019, California's legislature passed AB 2274, which differentiated community property pets from other community property, which would otherwise be subject to division by the court in any divorce proceeding just like the couple's house, car, and other assets. Instead, AB 2274 made it possible for the court to assign sole or joint ownership of a pet taking into consideration the care of the animal. In effect, this allows courts to assign sole or joint "custody" of a pet during divorce proceedings. If the court grants you sole ownership of your pet, then you will be solely responsible for the pet's care whereas if the court grants you and your ex joint ownership, you will share responsibility for the pet's care.
How Will the Court Decide Who Gets Custody of Our Pet?
When deciding who should get "custody" of a pet, the court may look to several factors, including:
- Which spouse acquired the pet
- Which spouse's name is one the pet's registration or adoption documents
- Which spouse provided for the pet's day-to-day care, including feeding, walking, and playing with the pet
- Which spouse provided for the pet's veterinary care
- Which spouse has the greater emotional bond with the pet
- Which spouse has the resources - both time and money - to provide for the pet's continued care and well-being
The ultimate goal is to determine what solution would be in the best interest of both parties but also that of the animal itself. This means that while one person may have primarily cared for a pet during a marriage when it comes to divorce proceedings, they may not necessarily be granted ownership based on that alone if they are unable to show they are willing and able to continue providing sufficient care after separation. In addition, if the court does decide to award sole ownership of a pet, it may include an order granting reasonable visitation rights to the other party if that is also in the best interest of the animal.
Reaching an Agreement Out-of-Court
Divorcing couples are generally encouraged by courts to try and reach an agreement on pet ownership out of court if they can. This can often be simpler and less expensive than going through a formal trial process, which is why many divorcing couples opt for this approach. When coming up with an agreement it is important to keep in mind both parties' connections to the pet, how well each would be able to provide for its care and needs, and any special circumstances that might need to be taken into consideration.
It's also important for divorced couples to consider what's best for the pet's wellbeing during this time and make sure that any decisions regarding their care take this into account first and foremost. Pet owners should consider what kind of environment would most benefit their animal companion– whether it's staying with one partner or splitting custody between both–and make sure that these arrangements serve the pet's needs before anything else. Ultimately, even though it might seem like an insurmountable obstacle at first, it is possible for divorced couples to come up with mutually beneficial arrangements that honor both parties' wishes as well as those of their beloved pet.
Whether you can negotiate an agreement with your spouse out of court or need to go before a judge to decide custody of your pet, it's vital that you have an experienced divorce attorney by your side who can advocate for your interests during the entire process. At Cutter & Lax, Attorneys at Law, we understand how much your pet means to you. Our experienced family law attorneys are knowledgeable in California divorce law and can assist you with any questions or concerns you may have about keeping your pet after your divorce. We are dedicated to providing the compassionate and knowledgeable legal counsel you need in this difficult situation.
If you need help navigating pet ownership during a divorce, reach out to us online or call us at (818) 839-2533 to schedule a consultation so we can discuss your legal options.