San Diego Pets, the New Custody Battle

It is not surprising that many California couples decide to adopt pets. But what happens to those pets when the couple decides to seek a divorce? Across the country custody battles over family pets are increasing. Although pets are not technically the couple’s children, they can become a core part of the family that neither spouse is willing to part with. If the couple does have children, the judge is likely to order the pet to stay with the child.

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One reason these pet custody cases are on the rise is the dissolution of same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships. These legal unions are relatively new and the couples tend to adopt pets in lieu of or in addition to children. Unlike children, pets are a form of property in every state. In the past, pets have been divided up along with the rest of the marital property without distinction. The family courts are changing and beginning to recognize that pets are more like children than furniture. The shift may be resulting from a widespread recognition of pets as part of the family rather than mere possessions. Litigants are now passionate and unashamed to fight for custody of a pet.

When a couple divorces, the best interest of the child guides a judge’s decisions on child custody and visitation. For pets, this is not the case. Since pets are a form of property, the laws regarding pets are generally aimed at benefitting the owner. The court will consider the same factors when deciding who gets custody of the pet as they would in deciding who gets custody of a television set. The court takes into consideration factors such as: whether either spouse owned the property prior to marriage or post separation, how much the property is worth, and any agreement the couple reached about who gets the property.

As California family law stands today, there is no pet visitation provision. The courts simply have the authority to award custody of the pet to one party or the other. If splitting couples wish to split time with their pets they must work out a visitation schedule together. These schedules can be negotiated with the help of lawyers and mediators. Some can be rather elaborate and include long-distance traveling for the pet, a holiday schedule, daycare expense sharing, grooming responsibilities, training, treats, food, medical care and other related decisions. Like parents who share legal custody of a child, some couples agree to share a form of legal custody of a pet. This means that both parties will have the right to make decisions regarding the health, safety, and welfare of the pet including end of life decisions.

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Another area of family law that has begun to recognize pets as family members is domestic violence. In the past, domestic violence restraining orders could not be issued to protect pets. More recently, this has become a common practice. Under California Family Code section 6320(b), “on a showing of good cause, the court may include in a protective order a grant to the petitioner of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned…the court may order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking…the animal.” Local community organizations have also reached out to victims of domestic violence and their pets. For example, Rancho Coastal Humane Society offers shelter for the pets of these victims while they escape their abusers and seek shelter themselves. Because abusers tend to threaten harm to the animal as a tool to control their victim, these programs facilitate a victim’s decision to escape and take part of the abuser’s power away.

Please contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding custody. San Diego Family Law Attorney Nancy J. Bickford is the only board-certified divorce lawyer representing clients in San Diego who also holds an MBA and a CPA. Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.