In a California Divorce, Who Gets Custody of the Family Pet?

June 6, 2013
By Thomas M. Huguenor on June 6, 2013 10:04 AM |

1421011_kitten_and_terrier.jpgIn San Diego, and in many cities throughout the country, pets are considered property, items to be allocated between the spouses much the same way other items of value are divided. Because California is a community property state, the couples' marital assets will be divided according to a 50-50 split. In most cases, the family pet would fall within that category. But, according to an article posted on the Animal Legal Defense Fund website, courts are beginning to intermittently acknowledge that a family's relationship with their pet may not adequately be categorized as "property" to be neatly assigned at the time of divorce. For assistance deciphering the local laws and climate of the courts in your jurisdiction concerning the handling of pets in a custody case, it is important to contact a local family law attorney to help clarify your potential rights.

The Humane Society of the United States reports that in 2011, there were approximately 78.2 million owned dogs and 86.4 million owned cats in the country. The data also indicates that 39 percent of U.S. households own a dog, while 33 percent own a cat. Further, we are spending great sums of money on the health and well-being of our pets: on average, dog owners spent $248 each year on veterinary visits, while cat owners spent $219 annually for routine vet visits.

As more and more people view their pets as part of the family, and in many cases, feel a strong emotional bond with their pets, it is no surprise that the courts have also begun to treat the custody of pets differently. As the law stands right now in California, courts would still consider a family pet to be community property, divisible at divorce. But because pets are becoming an even greater part of our lives, some courts have treated dogs like children, pondering what is in the best interest of the pets, in deciding who gets custody of them. According to one article, some courts have even awarded shared custody, visitation and support payments to the owners of the pets.

Most judges are extremely busy, with crowded dockets and serious matters to consider. Divorcing parties may be advised by their attorneys to settle the matter of pet custody ahead of time, so that their wishes can be finalized in the court order. If the parties cannot reach a mutually acceptable resolution, and a judge agrees to hear and decide the pet custody dispute, there are several factors which may be relevant: 1) whether one of the spouses owned the pet separately before getting married or whether they acquired the pet together, during the marriage; 2) who has been the primary caretaker of the pet over the years, that is, which party brought the pet to the vet, walked and fed the pet and spent the most time with the pet; 3) which spouse is the pet more attached to; and 4) if there are also children involved, which parent is going to receive primary physical custody of the children, who are most likely also attached to the family pet.

We seem to be on the cusp of some potential changes in the area of pet custody law - due to the evolving nature of our relationship with our pets and the willingness on behalf of many parties to fight for custody. But for the immediate time being, pets are considered property, to be divided between the spouses.

Thomas Huguenor, a divorce attorney certified in family law by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization, has 35 years of experience guiding the people of San Diego through the family law process. If you have questions concerning the division of property in California, contact us either online or at (858) 458-9500 for a free and confidential consultation.

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