Many marriages start with the intention to live with a “What’s mine is yours” mindset. In California, that is especially true due to the community property laws which dictate that any property earned or purchased during the marriage belongs equally to both parties. This applies to tangible items such as cameras, sports equipment, cars and houses, as well as intangible assets such as bank accounts, pension plans or even life insurance (as long as it has cash value).

But what does that mean for emotional and sentimental property such as pets?

Companion animals purchased prior to marriage

The laws in California usually support that if one person purchased Fido or Fluffy prior to the marriage or registered domestic partnership, the companion animal remains in the care of the original owner as outlined in separate property guidelines. However, the custody situation becomes more complicated if one or both spouses purchased the dog or cat during the course of the marriage.

Companion animals purchased after marriage

As of January this year, AB 2274 mandates that California courts will now decide which spouse is best equipped to take proper care of the animal when ownership is under dispute. Whereas previously, the statute had no room to consider man’s best friend any differently than community property laws treated Fido’s leash or food bowl, this change now pays more respect to the status that many pets hold as members of the family. It will also make it easier to create shared custody agreements that formalize visitation or split custody when both parties are interested and able to care for the animal. Rover can still watch the kids run around the soccer field on Saturday with Mom and take his weekly hike with Dad on Sunday if that is the best fit for the couple.

Custody agreements outside of court

As with other property law considerations, couples in the midst of a divorce still have the option to decide between themselves which party will retain a companion animal. Couples taking this route should be sure to formally submit this agreement to a judge to ensure that complications do not arise later on.