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Taking a 'paws': Issues to consider with pet custody

The new year brought a lot of changes for divorcing couples in 2019, especially here in California. Not only were major changes made to the tax code concerning spousal support payments, residents across the state of California welcomed Assembly Bill 2274. This bill finally gave judges in our state clear direction when it came to helping divorcing pet owners answer the all-important question: Who gets the pet after we split?

As we explained previously in a November 2018 post, the law no longer sees pets as property in a divorce. Instead, pets are treated more like children, meaning judges can consider what is in the pet's best interest before assigning joint or sole ownership of the animal in a divorce.

While this may seem simple enough, determining a custody arrangement is never without its challenges. And when it comes to pet custody arrangements, there are a few issues the law has yet to address.

1)  The application of AB 2274 is not mandatory.

As a December 2018 NBC article explains, judges are not required in all divorces to consider a joint or sole pet custody agreement. Instead, judges consider an arrangement only after the divorcing couple has made a request with the court.

Divorcing or separating pet owners should carefully consider this subtlety of the law from the beginning of dissolution or separation proceedings to ensure proper resolution of disputes if they arise.

2)  Care of the animal may be hotly contested by owners.

As is the case in child custody determinations, judges must consider the "best interest" of the pet, which can include who takes care of the majority of the pet's needs, whether one party is incapable of providing basic care, and if there is a history of abuse of the animal.

It stands to reason that courts may have to contend with individuals contesting claims that their partner cares for the animal more than they do or even false allegations of abuse in order to sway the judge toward a sole custody arrangement. It will become increasingly important in these types of situations to have supporting evidence and be prepared to defend your claims.

3)  The law leaves room for pet custody evaluations.

Since pet custody arrangements will be more like child custody arrangements, it stands to reason that the process of determining an arrangement could involve a custody evaluation in situations where pet owners disagree on things.

Applying the current evaluation process - which involves psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists, and social workers - to a pet custody case leaves a lot to interpretation, especially concerning the animal's "feelings." This added level of complexity may add more headaches - as well as time - to divorce or separation proceedings, which is something else couples should keep in mind.

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