How does the law look at pets? Pets are owned by 68% of Americans. Traditionally, many cases have stated that pets are property, just like the couch the pets sleeps on. This offends the many people who think of their pets as children, as a part of the family. The bond between pet and owner(s) can be very strong.
Are things changing? Maybe and slowly.
In 2017, Alaska became the first state to enact a law where the well-being of pets is a factor in the law. Normally, the law doesn’t care about the well-being of your toaster or lamp. So the allotment of pets in a divorce now has elements of custody, at least in Alaska.
As of January 1, 2019, in California, a new law is in effect regarding pets in a divorce. Section 2605 of the code reads as follows:
(a) The court, at the request of a party to proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties, may enter an order, prior to the final determination of ownership of a pet animal, to require a party to care for the pet animal. The existence of an order providing for the care of a pet animal during the course of proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties shall not have any impact on the court’s final determination of ownership of the pet animal.
(b) Notwithstanding any other law, including, but not limited to, Section 2550, the court, at the request of a party to proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties, may assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.
(c) For purposes of this section, the following definitions shall apply:
(1) “Care” includes, but is not limited to, the prevention of acts of harm or cruelty, as described in Section 597 of the Penal Code, and the provision of food, water, veterinary care, and safe and protected shelter.
(2) “Pet animal” means any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet.
Thus, the court can grant a joint custody regime if it wants. Previously, it really couldn’t. California is a community property state, meaning that all marital property is jointly owned and presumed to be on a 50/50 basis.
Please note that NJ has no such law and that pets here are still considered property. Like the couch, someone will be given the pet as equitable distribution. One nice thing about divorce mediation is that we are not purely bound by the law. In the divorce mediation, your pets can be treated like a child/family member with custody arrangement and “pet support”. Some clients do not care about their pets that strongly and the one that does have a strong bond usually retains the pet. Others do enter into custody and visitation arrangements, or they work that out informally if they are amicable. Some clients keep the pet with their child(ren). The court will certify pet custody in the marital settlement agreement if the couple so agrees.