For a lot of divorcing couples, the question of who gets to keep the dog or cat (or any other pet) can be far more important than who gets to keep the living room furniture.
Unfortunately, pets in most states are merely property under the law. That makes pet owners -- and pets -- vulnerable to a painful emotional fallout from a divorce when one spouse lays claim to a pet, and there's no recourse for the other except to ask for a dollar amount in compensation.
Now, thanks to Assembly Bill 2274, that's going to change in California starting in 2019. The bill, which was recently signed into law, provides the courts with some new guidance where the pets of divorcing couples are concerned. That means that California has just joined a small minority of states that treat pets like actual members of a family when the owners get divorced.
In the past, judges occasionally awarded visitation rights to a non-custodial pet owner after a divorce. That may be the new norm going forward. The owners of a pet can ask the court to grant them either sole or joint ownership, depending on the circumstances. The court will be able to take into consideration which spouse -- if either -- cared most for the pet, including who fed the animal, took it to the vet and handled other important tasks.
A divorcing spouse can also ask the court for sole custody based on the need to prevent cruelty or harm to the animal. That could be important in cases where domestic violence is involved, or a departing spouse is afraid that the remaining one will take out their frustrations on the family pet.
Not everyone is happy about the new bill, however. It faced opposition from at least one legal group based on the idea that there are already enough complex issues facing family courts now. Opponents fear that this new issue will bog down the courts even more, causing unnecessary delays in other cases.
If you're facing complex issues involving your divorce, an experienced California family law attorney can help you explore your choices for a resolution.