Most people treat their pets as family members. When a couple divorces, it can be difficult to negotiate who gets custody of the dog or cat. Canadian law states that pets are property. A new law in California is allowing judges to approach the issue similarly to child custody battles. Alaska and Illinois have similar laws on the books.
Previously, California courts typically granted pets to the spouse who adopted or paid for the animal. Courts did not have to consider the animal’s best interest in awarding ownership. Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed Assembly Bill 2274 that determines custody based on who takes care of a pet, i.e., walks them, grooms them, or brings them to vet appointments, reports the Los Angeles Times. The law will also allow a judge to order one spouse to pay for food, shelter and medical care prior to reaching a final decision about custody.
“There is nothing in statute that states a pet must be treated any differently than any other type of property we own,” Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), the bill’s author, noted. “However, as a proud parent of a rescued dog, I know that owners view their pets as more than just property. They become a part of our family, and their well-being should be a consideration during divorce proceedings.”
It’s possible that judges will award the parties involved partial custody. This writer knows a couple who shared custody of their two Brussels Griffons for nearly a decade. One had them on the weekends, while the other kept them during the week. The unofficial arrangement worked well, although they still had some disagreements about the animals’ care now and then.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals supports the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2019, because they believe it will reduce the number of homeless animals. Occasionally divorcing couples are unable to agree on custody, and their pets wind up in animal shelters.
Opponents to the law, including the Assn. of Certified Family Law Specialists, think the action will inundate courts with drawn-out discussions about which spouse is the more suitable caretaker. Others say courts already had the ability to decide pet custody.