Pet parenting has truly come into its own in the Digital Age. The internet is obsessed with cat memes and silly dog videos. Twitter and Instagram accounts devoted to embodying cat or dog personalities have thousands of followers. Actual cats and dogs with Twitter and Instagram accounts have thousands of followers (and we’re not grumpy about it).
What does this pet-crazed culture have to do with family law? Simply this: couples who get divorced these days are just as likely to fight about pet custody as they are to fight about actual child custody. In some cases, this is the issue people fight most about. So if you’re a devoted pet owner and getting divorced, what do you need to know about pet custody in California?
The fight over Fido and Fifi
First of all (and this may come as a shock), California law considers domestic animals property of the individual or marriage. Depending on when you obtained the pet and whether or not you have a prenuptial agreement, you may not be guaranteed custody or visitation with your pet after a divorce or break up.
That said, judges have become very creative in handling pet custody issues in California. Some of the options include:
- Awarding the pet to the person who bought it or brought it into the marriage
- Calculating the value and cost of keeping the pet when making decisions about property division
- Giving the pet to one spouse but ordering him or her to pay for the “replacement” cost of a pet for the other spouse
- Considering pet custody arrangements negotiated by the parties themselves
How the judge comes to these solutions depends on the situation and the judge. Most California judges will take care in considering factors like who cared for the pet’s needs, who is financially stable enough to properly care for the animal and whether a spouse was neglectful or abusive towards the pet. Furthermore, California has a unique family law that protects pets when their safety is threatened by domestic violence.
What about pet custody agreements?
While not formally required, individuals can negotiate pet-sharing agreements as part of their divorce settlement. Some judges may order pet parents to negotiate such an agreement, though it’s unlikely given that pets treated as property in a divorce.
Similar to actual child custody agreements, pet custody agreements can determine when, where and how pets will be shared between ex-spouses. You could also discuss how to split up the costs of veterinary care, grooming and other pet necessities. If your divorce is relatively amicable, these touchy issues can often be favorably worked out during mediation or in a collaborative divorce process.
Keep in mind that splitting up a household affects everyone – including your pets. It’s ok and natural for your pet to feel or act glumly after a significant break up. However, if serious symptoms of depression arise, like not eating or acting sluggish, talk with your veterinarian right away. Ultimately, you want to do what’s right for your pet.