Protect Your Pet: The Ultimate Pet Custody Divorce Guide (California)

By: Stephen L. Cawelti, APC

I consider my dog and cat to be a part of the family, and I’m not alone. As a practicing divorce lawyer in the Los Angeles area, I have many of my clients come to me frightened at the prospect of losing their beloved pet in their  divorce. Navigating the legalities surrounding pet custody can be confusing and cause a lot of anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be that way!

In order to protect your pet and your rights as a pet owner during a divorce, it is important to know the current laws surrounding pet ownership. Pets often provide their owners significant comfort when going through a divorce, but the transition can be hard on them as well as you.

In this guide, I break down the current California laws surrounding pet custody and simplify the information that you need to know in order to protect your pet and your pet owner rights during a divorce. At the end, we will also provide resources in order to help you help your pet transition post-divorce.

California Pet “Custody” Laws 

Before January 1, 2019, pets in California were considered property, and when you divorced, you and your spouse were entitled to half the value of the animal. Animals were considered no different than any other possession (like your car, your couch, or your t.v.). 

AB 2274 enacted into law in 2019 added Section 2605 to California’s Family Code to differentiate pets from these other types of inanimate marital assets.

So what is the real take away from this new law?

This new law not only requires the court to assign sole or joint ownership of the pet when requested by a party, but also asks the court to take into consideration the care and well being of the pet when determining custody.

The court can also award temporary custody based on the well being of the pet while the divorce is being reviewed. 

An important note, the term “pet custody” is not an official court term; legally it is referred to as “pet animal ownership”. The term “pet custody” is used by many outside of court however, and will be used in this article.

What Factors Determine the Well Being of the Pet? 

When establishing pet custody and evaluating the well being of your pet, a judge will consider many factors. Elements can include:

  • Who normally feeds, walks and plays with the pet
  • Who previously took the pet to their veterinarian appointments
  • In whose name is the animal registered
  • Who has the sufficient space to take care of the animal.

It is important to note, that your emotional well being can also be considered when establishing pet custody in a divorce. While it is not necessary to claim the pet as a “support animal”, the court will look at the emotional connection each party has with the pet.

What Types of Pets Fall Under Section 2605 in California? 

I’ve had clients ask me, “but do all pets fall under this new law? What about my hamster, my iguanas, my chinchilla?”

California law establishes that Family Code section 2605 applies to all “pet animals” defined as “any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet.” So, while fish, birds, dogs and cats certainly qualify, goats, pigs, or chickens may or may not…

Remember, every case is different, which is why it is so important to gather your facts and evidence and efficiently present them to the judge.
pet-graph

Proof of Ownership 

Previously, the ownership (aka custody) of a companion animal was typically determined by who paid for the animal or paid for the animal’s adoption fees. Judges did have the right to consider the best interests of an individual or pet when authorizing visitation agreements or establishing ownership, however, the law did not provide any guidance regarding this matter. 

With the new laws in place, ownership still can be a factor in a judge’s decision when awarding pet custody. It is important to note however, that ownership will not be the only factor considered. 

Mediation 

But is court your only option? If your lawyer tells you yes, turn and run! Not all divorces have to result in court. If you and your spouse can’t agree regarding the custody of your pet (or any other element of your divorce), mediation is often a way that you can reach an agreement without fighting it out in court.

The pros of mediation? Reduced costs, faster outcomes, greater control, confidentiality, and convenience are a few of the benefits. Many individuals prefer not to air out their dirty laundry in a public court setting. Mediation allows your divorce to be private and generally is substantially less costly.

Even if you are not able to resolve everything in mediation,  the mediation process can help you resolve some of your issues, which then allows you to focus on the unresolved issues in court.

Regardless of your mediation path, it is important for you to have a compassionate and experienced divorce attorney who can help you navigate the best approach for your unique situation.

Pet Custody & Domestic Violence

Many of my clients are shocked to learn that domestic violence takes many forms, and isn’t limited to punching and physical abuse. Sometimes the abuser tries to manipulate the victim through the animal. If this is the case, the court can consider taking the animal and giving it to the victim.

If you are a victim of any type of physical domestic violence, it is important to get help as soon as possible. 

In cases of domestic violence, the court can order temporary care for your pet animal. Even if the pet is technically owned by your spouse, the court can still award temporary custody to you if the safety of the animal is of concern, or if the court believes the abusive spouse might use the animal as a way of continuing to hurt the victim during the physical separation period.

But this law, like all others, can be used by a malintending spouse attempting to use it to gain full custody of the pet. Time magazine recently featured the story of a man named Paul Giarruso, whose ex-wife made claims that he was neglecting their dogs during his visitation time. This spurred on a lengthy legal battle in attempts to reestablish custody of the dogs. 

The most important step you can take to prevent a case like this from happening? When settling and drafting your divorce agreement, it is critical that you have a seasoned divorce attorney to review your agreement and ensure that your rights are protected over the short and long term. 

Should You Hire A Divorce Attorney?

Even in the most amicable proceedings, having a divorce lawyer review your agreement can help ensure that your rights are protected over the short and long term. When going through a divorce, determining pet custody is one of the many issues you will have to navigate. Having an experienced divorce attorney who will not only guide you through the process, but ensure that your rights and interests are protected gives you a much greater chance at getting the outcome you hope for. 

Unless you do it right, you cannot assume that the court system is going to consider the right information and automatically award you the custody of your pet. An experienced divorce lawyer will be able to help ensure that the court reviews all of the relevant information surrounding the case and consider not only the well being of your pet, but the emotional well being of you. 

Whether you are considering a divorce, working out a pet custody agreement, dividing property, or working out any other complex family law matter, you need qualified legal representation behind you.

At the our office, we understand what is at stake in your case. When you choose our law firm, you  can feel confident that every possible measure will be taken to protect your interests.

How To Help Your Pet Through & After The Divorce:

During and after your divorce, you pet is likely to be a great source of comfort to you. While they might not understand all that is happening, they will pick up on emotions and stress. The changes that ensue after a divorce can be a challenging transition for them as well.

We do not pretend to be animal professionals, so we enlisted the expertise of Alexandra Bassett (CPDT-KA), lead dog trainer and founder of DogSavy in Los Angeles, to help provide insight on how to assist your pet during the transition of a divorce.

How does divorce impact dogs? 

Dogs are pack animals that form strong attachments to their family members, so a divorce that results in a complete change in routine can impact a dog in many ways. They may become anxious or destructive whenever their daily routine is altered, especially if they are getting less attention and exercise due to having only one caregiver. They can also develop separation anxiety or become depressed if they are separated from a beloved family member.

How do you help your dog transition through a divorce?

Dogs are sensitive to changes in routine.

  • Dogs like routine and benefit from sticking to a sustained daily schedule where they get walked and fed at the same times they are accustomed to. If possible, try to get your dog used to a new schedule before any major changes, like losing the attention and care an ex-spouse provided or moving to a new home. If this is not possible, it would be good to ask friends or family to step in to help out, or hire a dog walker or pet sitter who can help you transition your dog to their new routine. 

If you are the one moving to a new residence

  • Sometimes, if a dog has not had time to settle into their new surroundings after a move, they may develop dog separation anxiety and bark, howl or become destructive when left alone for the first time. If possible, plan to move when you have several days or more to help your dog settle into their new home and routine before going back to work. You may also help your dog transition to spending more time alone, if necessary, with doggie decompression training. This training implements the use of regular downtime periods to help a dog transition to spending more time by themselves separated from you by a barrier. 

Take your dog to work or rely on dog care providers

  • If none of the above is possible, it’s a good idea to see if you can take your dog to work with you or look into doggie daycare options until you settle into a new routine. In certain situations, it may also be in your best interest to maintain a positive relationship with your ex and grant visitation rights in order to help your dog transition into their new life with you.

There is good news

Dogs are very adaptable and will adjust to their new routine. A dog that has to get used to spending less time with their custodian due to a divorce will benefit highly from more quality time and attention when you ARE able to spend time with them. 

Taking longer walks, going on new adventures (like hikes), playing extended games of fetch, or putting more time in to train your dog can all be beneficial when easing your dog into their new life and routine with you. Taking dog training classes or hiring a private dog trainer can also help you deepen your relationship with your dog and teach them new skills that boost their confidence. Joining meetup groups that are dog-centric can also be a good way to get out and meet fellow dog lovers as you start fresh in your new life with your dog.