Until Jan. 1, the family pet has accorded the same status in California divorce proceedings as the family television. Now, thanks to a law signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown, pets will have similar status as children.

While the new law requires judges to consider pets as community property, it gives them new discretion to examine who best cares for and protects the pet. The law also allows the court to have one party care for the animal for a period of time to determine which party will best care for the animal.

The law’s goal is to provide clear direction so the court can determine pet custody by what is best for the animal, the bill’s sponsor said.

Pets often the focus of attention during a divorce

Couples have often fought fiercely over pet custody, forcing judges to get creative. Some have put the pet between owners and had the pet go to the one it liked best. Some have ordered the pet to switch custody between owners similar to child visitation rights. Some have suggested selling the pet to split the proceeds.

The law was sponsored by Assembly member Bill Quirk and signed by Brown – both proud dog owners. But the law isn’t limited to canines – it defines a pet as any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet.

A national survey found dogs at the center of 88 percent of animal custody cases while only five percent of cases concerned cats. The remainder concerned horses, iguanas, pythons, parrots and turtles.

Spending $150,000 on legal fees

One couple in San Diego spent two years and $150,000 in legal fees in a fight over their pointer/greyhound mix. The fight included testimony from an animal behaviorist and a video presentation that ultimately resulted in one party gaining custody and the other party getting another dog.

The law follows similar laws enacted recently in Alaska and Illinois, which sought to halt what some saw as couples “weaponizing” pets in divorce proceedings. The Illinois law also has an exception for service animals.