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Fighting over Fido? What to know about pet custody in California

Many pet owners, if not most, consider their furry friend one-of-the-family. The pet industry is booming as we spend more money and time on our pets than ever before. It is not uncommon for pet owners to treat their pets like their children; feeding them nutritious food, assuring they get proper exercise, and spending exorbitant amounts of money in medical bills when necessary. Considering the love and devotion provided to pets, it comes as a surprise to most animal lovers that pets are categorized as mere property during a divorce in California.

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Because pets are considered to be property in California, courts are not required to make any type of custody or visitation arrangements. In accordance with state community property laws, a pet may either be considered separate property or shared property. If separate, the judge may just award the pet to the person who bought the pet. If the pet was bought during the marriage, a judge could simply consider the value and cost of the pet and award the pet to one person accordingly. Some judges award the pet to one party and order that person to pay the other party the cost of a new "replacement" puppy of the same breed.

The written law is black and white in characterizing pets as property but many judges realize there is a huge difference between awarding a living room set and awarding a beloved pet during a divorce. As a result, many judges consider much more than the financial cost of a pet when determining their "value." It is not uncommon for a judge to think of pet custody in much the same way they think of child custody. They will make a decision based on who cares for the pet and where the pet may be most comfortable and happy. In other words, they can consider what custody or visitation arrangement may be in the pet's best interests.

It is also possible for pet owners to work out a custody or visitation arrangement between themselves through mediation. For tips on how to work through this process, you can read this article titled, "Pet Custody Laws: 5 Things to Know."

Despite California treating animals as property during a divorce, California Family Law Codes are more sensitive when it comes to protecting the safety of animals. Family code § 6320 provides for the safety and protection of animals during a domestic violence dispute. This code allows judges to award the exclusive care, possession, or control of a pet to one party over the other. The code also allows a judge to restrain a party from harming the animal and may even prohibit a party from coming within a certain distance of the animal. This level of protection is clearly a sign that the codes are catching up to our affection and appreciation for animals.

Whether the decision about pet custody or pet protection is left in an owner's hands or the hands of the court, it will likely have a serious and sometimes devastating impact on the families that once shared that pet. Rather than try to figure out this difficult issue alone, it can be best to discuss your options and work toward a fair resolution with the help of a California family law attorney.

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