A common issue that comes up during the divorce process with our San Diego family law clients is how to divide the beloved family pets. It's not uncommon for pet owners to view their dogs, cats, birds, horses, etc. to be part of the family, much like a child. However, unlike children, California courts cannot divide a pet by way of a custody and visitation arrangement. Instead, pets are considered to be a piece of the marital property and can be given to only one of the pet owners in the divorce, not both of them.
Dividing Pets in Court
There really is no way to predict what a Judge will decide if you take your claim regarding the family pet to court. Judges will often consider some of the following factors of the divorce:
- When the pet joined the family and whether one party had the pet before marriage;
- Who the primary caretaker is (which spouse is typically responsible for grooming, feeding, walking and day-to-day care);
- Who has more space for the pet to play and exercise;
- Who has more time to be able to spend with the pet;
- Whether either party has abused the pet and is therefore unfit to be awarded the pet; and
- Which party has the greatest emotional bond with the pet.
Dividing Pets Outside of Court
Although courts will not consider options for sharing a pet, spouses do have the option to come to an agreement outside of court regarding sharing custody of the pet or giving the other spouse visitation rights of the pet after a divorce.
If keeping custody of your pet after a divorce is very important to you, it might be best to keep the issue out of court and instead try to negotiate a shared custody arrangement with your soon to be former spouse or compromise regarding giving up other marital assets in order to keep the pet. However, you have to prepare yourself to be willing to give up some pieces of marital property that your soon to be former spouse wants, so that in exchange you can keep your beloved pet. Although difficult, you have to weigh what is more important to you.
It is also important to keep the best interest of the pet in mind. For instance, if you have minor children too, it might be best for the parent who has custody of the children to also have "custody" of the pet. Also, you should consider whether you will truly be able to give the pet the love, care and attention that it requires. If you know that you have a busy schedule, your finances are going to be extremely tight following divorce, or if perhaps you are moving into a new place without adequate space for the pet, then maybe it would actually be in the pet's best interest to be given to your soon to be former spouse.