For a lot of people, pets aren’t just animals, they’re beloved members of the family. These loving, loyal furry friends have the power to enrich our lives in unique and irreplaceable ways, so it makes sense that when it comes to divorce, fights over who gets to keep the family dog can get pretty heated.
Luckily for pet owners, California’s new pet custody law ensures that the needs of your pet are carefully considered during divorce, and that they aren’t just thrown around like the family couch.
Here’s a closer look at pet custody laws in California, and how the team at Maples Family Law can help you.
Pets, Property, and Divorce
We love our pets. They may not be human, but that doesn’t stop us from caring about them a great deal. At the same time, because they’re not human, dividing pet ownership in a divorce used to be a little tricky. Without specific guidelines, judges were forced to determine pet ownership according to the normal laws of community property.
Which, we should point out, is how a lot of states still operate. Take a look.
Pets of the Past
California is a community property state. This means that whatever you acquire after tying the knot—be it a house, loan, dish set, or credit card—belongs to both of you equally (regardless of whose name it’s in). Essentially, “what’s mine is yours,” and upon divorce, this jointly shared property needs to be divided.
Until recently, this is how pet ownership was treated during divorce. Judges would look to see whether or not the pet could clearly be classified as the separate property of one of the spouses. If not, the pet was deemed “community property” (or, in other words, the shared property of both partners), and the pet battle commenced.
Without specific laws to reference, though, this became a unique challenge for divorce court judges, all of whom had their own methods of trying to solve the problem. Some placed the dog in the middle of the room, and awarded ownership to whoever the pet went to first. Others might simply split the pet brood down the middle, giving each spouse half of the fur babies.
Needless to say, it was an inadequate system. And luckily, pet owners no longer have to stress that the fate of their feline friends will be at the mercy of so much guesswork.
Pets of the Present
The problem with pets being treated as straight property, of course, is that they are alive. Just like humans, they have emotions and needs (albeit more primitive than our own). Hence, the dichotomy between living thing and physical property was a conundrum that courts struggled to balance.
Lawmakers addressed this problem in 2019, by passing Assembly Bill 2274, which updated the California Family Code, giving judges the option to assign joint and sole custody to pet owners, upon divorce.
Now, instead of being bartered and fought over like a set of silverware, California pet custody is being treated a lot more like child custody.
Pet Custody Under Assembly Bill 2274
The biggest difference about California’s new guidelines is that instead of treating animals like straight property, judges are now allowed to make decisions that put the pet’s well-being at the forefront. (Remind you of anything?)
This is a lot like child custody, where a child’s best interest is the driving force behind custody and visitation. While pets are still (technically) considered property, under Assembly Bill 2274, judges can consider things like which spouse:
- Has the strongest relationship with the pet;
- Carries out the most day-to day care;
- Plays with the pet;
- Takes the pet to the vet;
- Ensures that the pet stays in good health;
- Can provide the safest environment;
- Can handle the expense of the pet;
- Whether there are other children who are emotionally dependent on the pet; and, of course,
- The existence of any abuse or violence toward the pet.
Joint Pet Custody and Visitation
Under Assembly Bill 2274, pet ownership doesn’t necessarily have to be all or nothing. Indeed, when making these decisions, judges have the flexibility to award joint ownership, so that the pet can continue to enjoy a relationship with both spouses. And, of course, where there’s joint custody, there’s also visitation.
In the event you’re awarded joint pet custody, you and your spouse will need to settle on a visitation agreement. This operates in much the same way as a visitation schedule for a child, and, indeed, similar templates and schedules are often used by attorneys when drafting pet exchange calendars.
Of course, all these new guidelines do beg some interesting follow up questions. For example, if pet custody, then what about pet support? Can a judge require the non-custodial pet spouse to provide payments for a pet’s upkeep? Only time will tell how these questions will be answered.
Which Pets Qualify?
Bird and aquatic pet owners out there might be wondering whether or not their animals qualify for protection under California’s new guidelines. And the answer probably depends on what you view as a typical pet.
While Assembly Bill 2274 doesn’t list the specific animals that do and don’t apply, it does say that the additions are limited to “pet animals,” which it clarifies as being “any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet.”
With this in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, fish, birds, and even a turtle might qualify. However, it’s questionable whether the statute would extend to animals like pigs, goats, chickens, a pony, or even something exotic, like a tiger.
Regardless of whether you have a support dog or a comfort pony, these laws do not apply to service animals.
Support and service animals serve a special purpose to their human counterparts, and Assembly Bill 2274 cannot be used to separate these pairings. Instead, it is simply meant to keep pets from being used as bargaining chips, and tossed around at random to the highest bidder.
In fact, because the pet’s well-being is the driving force behind these new rules, judges even have the power to award the animal to one spouse, even if it is technically the separate property of the other. This may be needed in cases of domestic violence, where the pet is being abused, or if one spouse needs the pet for mental health reasons.
Don’t Wait for Divorce
In the end, if the future of your pet is that important to you, don’t wait for divorce to roll the dice for you. Contact your family law attorney today, and have your pet custody arrangement drafted in a marital agreement. For those who aren’t married, a prenuptial or cohabitation agreement, might be more appropriate.
These contracts can be drafted to dictate your pet custody desires, giving you the peace of mind in knowing that your pet’s future is secure, even if you break up.
Pet Custody Attorneys in California
At Maples Family Law, we understand how important your pet is to you. As pet lovers ourselves, we take the time to make sure that the needs of your pet are fairly considered in your divorce.
For more questions about how California handles pet custody, we want to hear from you. Call the Maples Family Law team at (209) 989-4425, or get in touch online, and let us help you ensure a bright future for your pet in your family’s new normal.