Who Gets to Keep Our Pets After We Split?

Divorce can be an emotionally tumultuous process involving difficult decisions about how to separate a shared life. While property division can be one of the most challenging parts of this process, figuring out who will get a couple's beloved pets can be absolutely heart-wrenching.

For most people, pets are more than just animals - they're family. They've been there through thick and thin, providing comfort, companionship, and a source of unconditional love. It's completely natural and valid to have strong feelings about your pets, but the law isn't quite as clear on the issue.

How Does California Law View Pets?

In California, pets were traditionally viewed as personal property in divorce proceedings, similar to a car or a piece of furniture. However, this perspective underwent a shift with a law that came into effect on January 1, 2019. This law allows courts to consider the pet's well-being in divorce cases, marking a significant departure from the previous "property" perspective. Consequently, California became the third state, after Alaska and Illinois, to consider the best interests of pets in divorce proceedings.

While this change in law sounds promising, it's crucial to note that the state does not treat pets exactly the same as children. In child custody cases, courts make decisions based on various factors that directly relate to the child's well-being, such as each parent's ability to care for the child, the child's preference, and the quality of the child's relationship with each parent. In contrast, there is no such comprehensive list of considerations for pets. The law allows judges to take "the care of the pet animal" into account, which opens the door to considering factors like who feeds the pet, takes it to the vet, and spends time with it, but it does not mandate these considerations.

Despite the lack of specific guidelines, this law represents progress in recognizing the unique role that pets play in our lives. It provides a framework for courts to move beyond the simplistic 'property' lens and consider the animal's well-being. While it may not provide all the answers, it pushes the conversation in the right direction. Divorcing pet owners, their lawyers, and judges will now have to navigate this new terrain together, carving out a path that, hopefully, puts the interests of our four-legged family members at the forefront.

Is Your Pet Considered Property?

Despite the legal changes in states like California, in many jurisdictions, pets are still considered property in divorce proceedings. This means that, rather than considering the pet's best interests, the court will typically assign the pet to one party or the other based on considerations of property division. This may involve looking at who purchased the pet, who spent more money on the pet's care, and who has been the pet's primary caretaker.

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Documentation can be essential. Having receipts, vet bills, or adoption papers in your name can help demonstrate that you were the pet’s primary caretaker or financial supporter.
  • Time spent with the pet can also be a factor. Photos or testimony showing you walking, feeding, playing with, or otherwise caring for the pet can be helpful.
  • Consideration may be given to who can best provide for the pet post-divorce. This can include factors like work schedules, housing arrangements, and financial stability.

It’s always a good idea to consult a knowledgeable attorney if you're facing a pet custody dispute. They can provide guidance based on your specific situation and the laws in your area.

What Factors Can Influence "Pet Custody"?

Here are generally a few common considerations that can influence the court's decision:

  • Who was the pet's primary caretaker? This refers to who took responsibility for the pet's daily needs - feeding, walking, grooming, and arranging vet appointments. Evidence of being the primary caretaker can significantly strengthen your claim to keep the pet post-divorce.
  • Who has a suitable living environment for the pet? Judges may consider who has a home environment that is suitable for the pet. This could include having enough space for the pet to move around, access to outdoor space for dogs, and a quiet, stress-free environment for more sensitive animals.
  • Who has the financial means to care for the pet? Pets can be expensive, and courts may consider who is better able to afford the pet's ongoing care and any unexpected vet bills.

In some cases, if the pet was acquired during the marriage, judges might consider the pet a marital asset, which means it would be subject to division just like any other marital property. In these cases, deciding who gets the pet may come down to negotiation between the parties. Both parties might present their arguments for why they should get the pet, and the judge might decide based on these arguments and the evidence presented.

In addition to these factors, some courts may consider the pet's well-being, much like they would in a child custody case. This could include looking at factors like the pet's relationship with each party, each party's ability to care for the pet, and any other factors that might affect the pet's well-being.

The court's goal in any custody dispute, whether it involves children or pets, is to make a decision that is in the best interests of the involved parties. This means that any factor that could affect the pet's well-being could be considered.

Will the Court Make You Share Custody or Ownership of Our Pet?

In some cases, the court may indeed decide that shared custody or ownership is the best solution, particularly if both parties are deeply attached to the pet and have demonstrated the ability to provide adequate care. Under such an arrangement, both parties would have predetermined periods of responsibility for the pet, like shared custody of a child. This solution can be beneficial for the pet by allowing them to maintain a connection with both parties. Still, it requires a level of cooperation and communication that might be challenging during a difficult divorce.

Judges have discretion in these cases, and the specific circumstances can significantly impact the final decision. If you're hoping for a shared custody arrangement for your pet, consult an attorney who can help you make a strong case for shared custody.

Trust Burch Shepard Family Law Group with Your Divorce

At Burch Shepard Family Law Group, we understand the emotional toll of divorce, especially when it comes to beloved pets. We believe that your four-legged family members deserve the utmost consideration during this challenging time. As experienced family lawyers, we're familiar with the intricate laws surrounding pet custody and remain committed to ensuring the welfare of your pets while safeguarding your rights as pet owners.

Our team takes a personalized approach, taking the time to understand your unique circumstances and aspirations. We're committed to providing clear, concise advice that aligns with your specific situation and the nuances of your locale's legislation. Whether your case requires negotiation, mediation, or litigation, we have the skills, experience, and tenacity to advocate fervently on your behalf.

We invite you to reach out to us and schedule a consultation to discuss your pet custody concerns. Our dedicated team is prepared to help you navigate this complex aspect of divorce, ensuring you're equipped with the information and support necessary to make informed decisions. Trust Burch Shepard Family Law Group to stand by your side, providing the empathy, expertise, and dedication you need during this difficult time.

If you are facing a pet custody dispute during your divorce, contact us online or give us a call at (949) 565-4158 to schedule a consultation to find out how we can help.