Pet Custody Disagreements Treated The Same As Child Custody Disputes In California Divorce Courts

California law recognizes that pets are living beings, not property.

California courts pass law to settle pet custody disagreements.
Rafa artphoto / Shutterstock

California law recognizes that pets are living beings, not property.

Recently, a bill was signed by the Governor of California which granted judges the authority to settle pet custody disagreements similarly to the way that they handle child custody disputes. The law may be the first of its kind, revealing a lot about how the role of the family pet has changed over time.

According to Snopes, Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill. The law will take effect on January 1, 2019. Prior to the bill’s signing, pets were treated as property — likened to material goods such as TV’s or other inanimate objects — in California divorce courts. Now, however, judges will have to decide upon the ownership of a pet in the same way as they do when determining the custody of a child.

Megan Green, a family law attorney in Los Angeles, has witnessed cases where couples who have split fight over the custody of their pet. Green believes the bill is a positive step forward.

“I think it’s a good idea. I personally have a little rescue Bichon Poodle, named Rodney King Stone. He’s like a family member.”

California’s new law concerning pets in divorce cases reveals how people’s perception of domesticated animals has changed. Like Green, many pet owners love their dogs, cats or any other animals in their home in a similar fashion to how they might love their human relatives. So, having to part with their pet indefinitely may be deemed too harsh a decision.

Gov. Brown isn’t the first to perceive the changing role of domesticated animals, though his state is one of the first to elevate animals from property to proper family members. Since there are no laws elsewhere on the books, judges from other American states have had to get creative with their final decisions.

In some cases, the pet has had to choose whom to go home with within a court. Much like a movie scenario, the pet is put in the middle of the two vying parties — and whomever they run to has full custody. In other cases, judges have had to draft schedules for time with the pet.

According to Legal Match, courts currently settle pet ownership disagreements based on two primary factors — namely who bought the pet, and who takes care of the pet. These two conditions, however, may overlap. The person who purchased the pet is classified as someone who not only bought the animal, but also pays for its expenses. The person taking care of the pet is defined as the person who takes the animal to the vet and pays for the visit.

As of right now, it seems that the person who purchased the pet — and pays for its expenses — gets the legal upper-hand. It is far easier to prove in court whether one has bought a pet and paid for its expenses with receipts. Taking care of a pet encompasses actions that might not be as easily tracked via a paper trail — intangibles like feeding the pet or talking the pet out for walks remaining invisible to such metrics.

The best case scenario for pet owners outside of California might be to sign a pet custody agreement with the person you are sharing your furry family member with. Much like a prenup, a pet custody agreement discusses what would happen to your beloved pet should a falling out occur between the parties involved.