Who Gets Custody of the Dog in Our Divorce?

For people with beloved dogs, cats, potbelly pigs, or any other type of pet, their animal housemate may be their best friend, a trusted companion, or even like a child, but in the world of divorce law, a pet is decidedly “property” and not treated the same way a child would in a custody proceeding. But while California law does not use the word “custody” to refer to a pet, a 2018 California law amending the Family Law Code does provide for a “custody-esque” approach in determining which spouse should get the pet after the divorce, and even provides for relief during the pendency of the divorce case.

How California’s Divorce Law Affects Pet Ownership

California Family Code section 2605, which was passed into law in 2018, states that, in a divorce proceeding, a Court “may assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal [to one of the divorcing spouses] taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.” The statute goes on to state that “care” is defined to include “the prevention of acts of harm or cruelty…and the provision of food, water, veterinary care, and safe and protected shelter.”

What this means is that either spouse may ask the Court to determine who should own and care for the pet after the divorce based on which spouse will best take care of the pet. Meaning that the parties can provide evidence to the Court of their demonstrated care for the pet in the past and their ability to do so going forward.

For example, a spouse seeking to obtain ownership of a pet over the other spouse’s objections might provide the Court with:

  • Records of veterinarian visits arranged and attended by that spouse
  • Evidence of past neglect or other unsuitable action with respect to the pet by the other spouse
  • Testimony regarding their knowledge of the pet’s needs
  • Evidence of his or her home being particularly suitable for the pet in comparison to the other spouse’s home
  • A plan for providing care for the pet, e.g. a particularly veterinary provider, dog walking services, day care services, etc.

As of now, there are no written judicial decisions indicating how judges have applied this rule in contests over pet ownership, and the law regarding pet ownership in divorces is understandably not nearly as extensive as that regarding child custody, but pet owners can know that California courts are required to take into consideration which spouses can best provide for a pet in assigning ownership of that pet in a divorce.

Note that the California law specifically guides judges to assign ownership of the pet based on how the pet is benefitted by the human rather than how the human is benefited by the pet (which is analogous to child custody laws which award custody on what is best for the children, not the adults). Thus, if one person registers the pet as an emotional support animal or otherwise pleads to the Court how important the pet is to him or her, this may move the judge on general notions of justice and fairness, but it is not clear that this law is of any help in supporting that argument.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Family Code section 2605 also allows for either spouse to request the Court provide for temporary ownership and responsibility for care of a pet during the pendency of the divorce, meaning from the time the divorce petition is filed on through to finalization.

Reaching an Agreement on Pet Care and Ownership in Your California Divorce

That said, as much as we love our pets, few of us want to be spending extensive legal fees litigating pet ownership before a Court when there are often a number of other issues to resolve at the same time both parties are preparing for a new financial life post-divorce.

Thus, it makes sense for the parties to work together through their respective attorneys to reach an agreement regarding ownership and/or care of the pets in a settlement agreement outside of court. The parties can agree on terms such as:

  • Where the pet shall reside, which can be on a schedule involving both spouses
  • What type of care (e.g. veterinary services, type of food provided, etc.) the pet should receive
  • Who should pay for care of the pet

Such an agreement regarding ownership, care, and financial responsibility for the pet is fully enforceable in court post-divorce.

It is also important to keep in mind when determining whether to settle out-of-court or litigate a pet ownership dispute before a judge that the amount of time and care a judge will be willing to devote to the issue of pet ownership may vary widely. California family law courts are notoriously backlogged as it is and judges often face an overwhelming parade of difficult questions involving child custody, domestic violence, and all sorts of financial and support issues, thus the question of who receives a pet in a divorce may not be top of mind for a judge, and thus litigants are encouraged to settle such issues out of court whenever possible.

Guidance on Your California Family Law Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.