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Even if you’ve never been through a divorce before, or been close to someone going through a divorce before, you probably have a pretty good idea of how divorce courts generally divide things like money and property, as well as how they attempt to divide parenting time for divorcing parents. You’ve probably seen enough portrayals of divorce in fiction or news stories about divorce to know that courts try to give both parents a reasonable amount of time with their child when possible because that’s what’s in the best interests of the child, for example. But what about pets?

Pets aren’t children – though, in many families, pet owners refer to them as such and consider them part of the family – so courts typically don’t recognize their right to have divorce cases decided in their best interest like they do with children. But pets also aren’t inanimate objects like couches or televisions that can be casually assigned to one person or the other without much negative consequence if the person who winds up with them doesn’t care for them. A new change in California law aims to address the space that pets occupy in a divorce and how the custody of a pet is to be allocated.

Pets as Property

Up until recently, pets were considered community property in a divorce. This means that they were considered the same way a jointly owned car or a piece of furniture. California law requires divorce courts to divide community property equally, which basically means that if one person is awarded the family dog, the other person should receive something that is equal in value. Of course, value is not the best way to decide who should get a pet.

While some pets, like a show dog or exotic reptile, can be very valuable, many pets cost more to care for than they would be worth in resale value. And in any case, pet owners are often less concerned with the dollar value of their pet and more concerned with their emotional attachment to the pet and with making sure that their pet is properly cared for. Judges recognize this as well, and there are many examples of situations where judges have tried to come up with ways to determine who should be the one to end up with a pet.

They may have ordered a couple with two pets to split them up, so that each partner ends up with one pet, for example, or they may have attempted to determine which person the pet was most attached to. But this isn’t always an ideal way to determine who should get a pet either. If you think of pets as more akin to children, you can understand why – courts don’t usually separate siblings just so that each parent can have one, or ask small children to choose the parent they prefer.

The Care of the Family Pet

California’s new pet custody law distinguishes pets from other types of property. Instead of trying to divide them up equally, judges will need to consider “the care of the pet animal.” That means that they’ll be able to consider factors such as who feeds the cat, who walks the dog, who takes the animals to the veterinarian, and who protects the animal.

The law doesn’t necessarily require that judges consider these factors. The language of the law is that judges are authorized to take the care of the pet into account, not that they must do so. But this change does move pets closer to having standing as family members in a divorce – which is what many pet owners consider them to be – instead of simple property.

Legal Precedent

California is not the first state to pass legislation regarding the custody of pets in divorce cases. Both Alaska and Illinois have passed similar legislation in recent years, making California the third state to tackle the issue. However, California is the largest state to pass legislation regarding pets and divorce, and it’s likely that they won’t be the last. Other states may look to California’s laws as an example when considering their own similar laws.

Surveys show that the issue of how to split up pets during a divorce is an issue that’s on the rise all over the country, which is indicative of the increasingly important role that pets play in the lives of their owners and the change in the way that pets are viewed in society at large. While pets once were commonly thought of as simple property, it’s become much more common to view the family pet as a true member of the family. Society in general is also much more concerned with animal rights than it was in the past, so there’s an increasing interest in making sure that the pet ends up in a situation where it will be well-cared for.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has been requesting that courts consider the best interests of the animal in divorce and custody cases for a number of years now. They argue that the concerns of pets in divorce cases are very similar to the concerns for children and other dependents and that pets should have the standing necessary for courts to take their needs and best interests into account. California’s new law is a sign that courts are moving in that direction.

If you’re a pet owner considering a divorce, it’s important to know what the laws are in your area when it comes to pet custody. If you’re not in a state where the law asks judges to take the needs of the pet into account, there may be other legal arguments that you can use to make sure that your pet is protected and that you are able to keep or visit with your pet. A legal resource group like Family Law Legal Group can help you research the laws in your area and find out what the best way is to make sure that your pet’s needs are met even during a divorce.  

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