Do California Divorce Courts Award Custody of Pets?

Do California Divorce Courts Award Custody of Pets?

When you own a dog, cat, or other pet, they are often more than an animal companion—they are like members of the family. Owners can form intense bonds with their shared household animals. Therefore, not surprisingly, the question of who gets the family pet can become contentious during a divorce. If you are involved in a California divorce and have a household animal, you may need to know: Do California divorce courts award custody of pets?

Deciding Pet Custody

In many states, when pet owners divorce, their animals are treated the same as any other asset. Meaning that one party is typically awarded ownership of their shared pet as they would be a car or other household possession. Although owners in these states may be able to enter into an agreement regarding pet custody, these terms may not be enforceable.

California Pet Custody

In 2019, a California law went into effect that relates to pet ownership during divorce. According to the law, [t]he court, at the request of a party to proceedings for dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties, may enter an order, before the final determination of ownership of a pet animal, to require a party to care for the pet animal.”  Additionally, the court “may assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.”

Under the new law, California courts have been given the authority to consider what is best for the animal when granting ownership of a marital pet. This change marks a shift from treating animal companions like inanimate property and recognizing the pet and owner’s emotional connection and bond.

Although the pet ownership provision doesn’t reference the same standards as child custody, the court can consider facts related to a party’s ability to care for the pet in making its ownership determination. Additionally, it’s within the court’s power to award ownership to one person or both.

What is Considered a Pet?

According to the law, a pet animal is considered to be any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet. Therefore, if the couple owns livestock or another type of commercial animal, the statute would probably not apply to its ownership during divorce. Likewise, if one person owned the pet before marriage, the animal would be considered that person’s separate rather than community property.

Establishing Care of a Pet

As the change in the law demonstrates, California divorce courts can recognize the relationship that parties share with their pets when making ownership decisions. In deciding who should get a pet, the court can consider factors such as the parties’ past efforts and relative ability to provide care (“food, water, veterinary care, and safe and protected shelter”) for the animal.

If you and your ex can’t agree on ownership, you may have to prove that you can provide greater care for your animal companion. This may involve gathering evidence such as veterinary bills and details regarding your pet’s recreation and care plan. In addition, if your ex hasn’t been involved in your pet’s day-to-day activities and care and doesn’t know about their needs, you may need to provide testimony and evidence as to those facts.

If you are involved in a California divorce and anticipate that pet ownership may be an issue, you should contact an experienced California divorce attorney. Your divorce lawyer can help you examine pet ownership and the other issues in your case.

Contact a California Divorce Attorney

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger are experienced California family law attorneys who can answer your questions about pet custody and the other matters at issue in your divorce. We assist clients along California’s Northern to Southern Coast, including San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Marin, San Jose, Gold River, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura/Oxnard, and surrounding communities. Call us at 415-293-8314 to schedule a private appointment or visit our website.








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