Divorce and the family pet in California

by | Mar 21, 2024 | Divorce

In many cases, pets occupy honored positions as family members. To some individuals, they are the same as children.

Because of this, pet placement can be a contentious topic during divorce. The spouses do have the option to negotiate a settlement regarding the pet, but if they are unable or unwilling to do so, the judge makes the final decision.

Property no more

California law once designated pets as property, akin to cars or houses, in divorce cases. However, a 2019 law allows judges to treat them in a manner similar to children, awarding custody.

Determining factors

Just like with child custody, judges use a variety of factors to determine pet custody. This includes:

  • Who owned the pet prior to marriage
  • Who paid to purchase the pet (this especially applies if he or she is a purebred or pricy prize animal)
  • Who was the primary caretaker during the marriage (playing, feeding, transporting to the veterinarian, etc.) and thus more likely to continue providing decent care
  • Who has the financial and space means to provide a good environment, since pets are expensive
  • Who paid most of the pet expenses during the marriage

One consideration that does not directly relate to the pet’s well-being is if there are minor children attached to the pet whose mental and emotional well-being may sustain damage from separation. In such a case, the children’s well-being takes precedence, and judges are likely to place the pet with the primary custodial parent.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 44.6% and 26% of households own a dog or a cat, respectively. This does not take into account all the households with other kinds of pets. Animal companions are not objects to their owners, and the state’s laws reflect this. Courts generally focus on what is in the best interests of the pet when deciding who they will live with, if there is no agreement between the spouses and no children.