Up until the new law was enacted, California courts treated pets like other physical, inanimate property such as furniture, cars, and other belongings. The family dog, cat, or another pet would be considered a part of the property to be divided when the marriage ended. Often judges would base their decision on which party purchased or adopted the animal. Judges had wide discretion in determining where the pet would be best placed or in arranging visitation schedules. The legal system, however, offered no official guidance.
Up until this year, only Alaska and Illinois had similar legislation. With the signing of AB2274, California courts must now view pet ownership differently from other possessions.
Family pet custody battles have been on the rise. While they reflect a pet’s important role in the family, they’ve also added conflict to an often already stressful situation. If you’re involved in a custody case involving a family pet, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which ranked California #3 in the nation for its animal protection laws, may provide an amicus brief. Before getting into a lengthy, expensive battle over the family pet, remember that California’s law does not require a judge to make a conclusion, it merely gives guidance on what can be used to determine such situations.
Though pets still do not have any technical distinction from property, judges may now, as of January 1, 2019, “assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.” This means that the judge must take into account what’s best for the pet in terms of care and well-being when awarding sole or shared custody. The Court may even give temporary ownership to one “parent” during a separation or while the divorce is still in progress.
Essentially, the new law is designed to reflect how Californians care for and view their pets as members of the family—not just “property.”
A judge can evaluate the following questions when determining who will be awarded custody:
- Who typically feeds the pet?
- Who typically exercises the pet (walks, play time, fetch)?
- Who most often took the pet to veterinarian visits?
- Who’s name is registered as the owner?
- Who’s household can accommodate the pet with space and shelter?
- Who’s emotionally connected to the pet?
To sway the decision in your favor, you should gather proof of the above. Also, consider any other factors related to the specific type of pet you have. For example, fish and birds may have specific care regimens that are different from cats and dogs.
Before this law was enacted, pets were simply treated as any other inanimate piece of property such as a TV or a dining room table. Now, there are much clearer guidelines as to how custody of a pet will be handled and is based upon what the court deems as best for the animal.
For those who have a family pet, this new law may help bring some peace-of-mind as they navigate the already-stressful divorce process.
If you’re concerned about what may happen to your pet during a legal separation or divorce, consulting with an experienced family law attorney who understands the issue and new ruling can help alleviate your worries.
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This is intended as general advice and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Each situation is unique and requires specific analysis of relevant contracts, facts and legal obligations.