California Passes New Law for Custody of Pets in Divorce

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on October 10, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Cue the eye roll that says, "Only In California..."

Pets, long viewed by most divorce courts as property, have historically been divided up according to ownership rather than custody. But there is a growing interest to use custodial analysis in determining who should get the family pets in a divorce. California has now codified the concept of "Best Interest of the Pet" in Assembly Bill 2274, which goes into effect January 1, 2019.

This law allows courts to assign sole or joint ownership of a pet while considering the pet's well-being. And people thought California had gone far enough back in 2007 when it included pets in the definition of domestic violence victims in California Family Code Section 6320! In California's defense, it isn't the first state to protect the best interest of the pet. Alaska and Illinois have similar laws.

Pets as Property -- a Bone of Contention

All joking aside, it is common for people to view pets as full-fledged member of the family, and therefore a pet should have some rights. But is it the pet that is getting the right, or the owner? Can we still use the word "owner" if the pets aren't property? In truth, this law does more than outline where the pet resides. The judge will listen to both sides and discuss the care that each gives to the pet, and decide who would be the better "parent," based on who walks and feeds the pet, takes the pet to vet appointments, and the like.

Custodial rights of the pet can be sole or joint, and can address issues of care, such as protection from cruelty, provisions for food, water, veterinary care, and shelter. Of course, visitation rights can be established. All of these clauses are part of the divorce agreement, and can be challenged and litigated, on the same plane as missed alimony payments.

Love Is a Four Legged Word

Proponents of the law argue that something official was needed. Without it, judges sometimes have to just place a pet between two owners and decide for themselves who the pet likes better. Or sometimes the pet would be shuffled between the two homes, week after week. This law will give judges the power to make more detailed decisions, and there will be some bite behind the bark of the court order. Also, pets are often used as a bargaining chip in a negotiation strategy. Just as one spouse might want the furniture, and the other the china, in some cases, family pets are used to get something else valued. Though often not an effective strategy, which can come back to "bite" the spouse, this new law will take the pet out of the pile of chattels to be divided.

If you are going through a divorce and want to make sure your pets are a valued part of the divorce proceedings, contact a local divorce attorney. A legal professional will be up to date on this new law, and be best able to help you secure the rights you are looking for. Divorce is never fun, but having your best friend with you every night can make it more palatable.

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