Many American households own pets, with statistics showing that approximately 37-47% of American households have a dog, and 30-37% have a cat. With pets being so common, it is no wonder that determining where the pet will live following a divorce is a common issue. Although most people think of their pets as members of the family, the law treats pets as property. If one spouse owned the pet before marriage, then the pet may be separate property, and the original owner will keep the pet. However, if the pet was obtained during the marriage, then the pet is marital property, and a court will have to decide which spouse will be awarded the pet, just as a court must do with any other piece of marital property. A court may create a “custody arrangement” similar to visitation plans you might see for a child.
California courts may look to a variety of factors in determining who will be awarded a pet. Judges are typically not blind to the fact that a pet holds a special place in the hearts of its family, and has emotions and its own needs. Judges will generally try to be sensitive to this. If one spouse can prove that he or she historically has been the primary caretaker of the animal, and was generally responsible for feeding, walking, and grooming the pet, this could be relevant information when making an argument that the pet should be awarded to that spouse. Consideration will also be given to whether the couple has children. If the children are bonded with the pet, as children typically are, that may be enough to have the court award ownership of the pet to the parent who has the children the majority of the time. This is not to say that the pet will be passed back and forth between houses when the children go to the other parent for visitation.
California law also gives special consideration to pets where domestic violence has been a factor in a relationship. California Family Code section 6320 provides that when one spouse is a victim of domestic violence and applies for a restraining order, a judge may include a pet in the restraining order as a protected party. The court may order that the offending spouse is forbidden from coming around the pet, harming the pet, and also from removing the pet from the care or custody of the abused spouse.
Pets hold a special place in our families and our hearts. If you are strongly connected to your pet and are concerned about your options, contact us today at 619-800-0384 to discuss your pets and your case.