Starting in 2019, California pet owners going through a divorce may have to do what’s best for their animals when splitting. This is the gist of a new state law that gives judges the discretion of considering pets’ best interests when determining who gets Fido or Fifi. Previously, pets were legally treated as physical property. Specifically, the law allows pet custody agreements to be based on the care and well-being of the pet or pets that jointly belong to separating couples. Animal rights supporters applaud the measure.
Legal experts state that the new law means dividing marital property of this nature can involve considerations such as which soon-to-be-ex spouse normally cares for and plays with the pet the most. The law extends beyond dogs and includes any type of animal that’s kept as a household pet, although nearly 90 percent of pet custody fights do involve dogs. In the past, some judges have taken pet custody issues seriously. However, there have also been instances when a judge has told divorcing couples they can sell their pet and split the proceeds.
A lack of clarity with laws regarding pet ownership or custody post-divorce has created some confusion. In 2013, a New York Supreme Court justice greenlit a custody trial involving a mini-dachshund. But some judges at the same level disregarded the ruling as far as its applicability to similar cases. While some family law practitioners are concerned that the new measure could contribute to long, drawn-out cases, supporters note that the law is purposely optional to help minimize this risk.
Not all divorce cases involving pets have to decided by the courts. If separating spouses are fairly civil with one another, it may be possible for a lawyer to work out mutually acceptable arrangements with custody of a pet that’s appreciated by both individuals. Should a pet custody dispute related to a divorce end up in court, an attorney may make a case for allowing a client to keep a pet by presenting evidence of their involvement with the animal or calling on animal behavior experts to provide expert testimony.