Historically, pets have been treated like property in divorce, subject to the same property division rules as the family home or the car. This has generated concerns, as most pet owners see their pets as members of the family, not assets with a monetary value. The California legislature has responded to these concerns by passing a law that will dramatically change how dogs, cats and other pets are treated in a divorce.

The Best Interest Of The Pet

According to an article from NBC News entitled New California Divorce Law: Treat Pets Like People - Not Property To Be Divided Up, the issue of pet custody has been an ongoing problem. The article points to one divorce case that dragged on for two years over the future of a couple's pointer/greyhound mix.

Part of the problem was that judges did not have clear guidance on what to do in these matters. The new law grants judges the power to make a decision about pet custody based on what is in the pet's best interest, which is more along the lines of how child custody is currently determined in California courts.

To determine pet custody arrangements that are in the pet's best interest, the judge may consider a number of factors, including the amount of time each owner spends playing with the pet, walking the pet and caring for the pet.

An American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers survey indicated that the majority of these cases involved disputes over dog custody, with cat custody and horse custody in distant second and third places. The law would apply to all pets.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of The New Law

Proponents for the law indicate that it will make divorce easier for the pets themselves and prevent owners from weaponizing their pets during the divorce process. The law does have its opponents, who are concerned that these matters may end up clogging already crowded courtrooms and that disputes would involve much more obscure pets than the typical dogs and cats most popular in California households. 

The law took effect on January 1st, 2019 and California is only the third state in the country to enact such a law, so only time will tell what impact it has. In the meantime, pet owners should choose an attorney who understands how the new law works as they move forward in the divorce process.