Pet Custody In California
Many pet owners treat their dogs and cats almost as if they were children. The law in the state of California, however, does not. What happens to a pet when divorce splits up a family? In a growing number of California divorces, the fate of the family pet is hotly disputed.
In the eyes of the law, a pet is an item of property, just like a car or a house, but divorcing spouses are almost never willing simply to sell a pet and split the proceeds. If you are getting a divorce in Southern California and you co-own a pet with your spouse, you may need the help of an experienced Orange County family law attorney.
A total of more than 179 million pets are a part of more than 70 million households in the United States. We spend more than $40 billion a year on our pets in this nation. More pets, more pet owners, and more dollars all add up to more animals at the center of more divorce proceedings.
In a recent survey, nearly one in four family law attorneys contacted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said that pet ownership issues are increasing in divorce cases. Family court judges in all fifty states are often compelled to make decisions that are for all practical purposes pet custody and visitation rulings.
WHOSE INTERESTS ARE OVERLOOKED IN DIVORCE CASES?
Even though it’s now two decades old, one case out of Florida is still a clear example of what can happen almost anywhere when pet owners get divorced. In 1995, an appeals court in Florida threw out a trial court’s earlier decision to grant “visitation rights” – with a pet who was purportedly the “family dog” – to a woman named Kathryn Bennett. The appeals court instead determined that the dog was a pre-marital asset owned exclusively by her ex-husband, Ronald Bennett. The court ruled that dogs in the state of Florida are property, with no exceptions.
However, the Animal Legal Defense Fund says that there’s a third party whose interests are routinely being overlooked in these cases, and that third party is the animal. “We ask the court to consider the best interest of the animal rather than treating the animal as if he or she were a toaster,” says Joyce Tischler, the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s director of litigation. Ms. Tichler argues that judges in divorce proceedings should consider which spouse spends more time with the pet, feeds it, and drives it to the vet as well as who initially brought the pet into the family.
ARE PET-RELATED DISPUTES ALWAYS ABOUT THE PET?
Disputes over pets during or after a divorce may or may not, in fact, be about some underlying, separate issue. Someone who repeatedly takes an ex-spouse to court about a pet may, in fact, be using the pet merely as an excuse to harass or control his or her ex.
Nancy Peterson, speaking for the Humane Society of the United States, says that “the pet may become a symbol of power and control” in a divorce proceeding. A divorce-related court battle over a pet can be expensive and emotionally exhausting, but such a dispute can also be avoided.
In uncontested California divorces, for example, many couples are setting up their own visitation schedules and negotiating their own agreements about veterinary visits, trips to the dog park, and unexpected costs.
When a divorcing couple in California can agree upon any potentially acrimonious issue in the divorce, they can save themselves a great deal of time, money, and aggravation. In fact, some couples have even taken preliminary legal steps to avoid future disputes regarding pets by including stipulations about their pets in a prenuptial agreement.
HOW CAN A PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT HELP PET OWNERS?
Couples who are planning to marry in California can create a prenuptial agreement that spells out who will own or have primary custody of the pets and how the expenses for the pets will be handled if there’s a divorce. A prenuptial agreement is a formal legal and financial document and an exercise in thoughtful planning for the future.
Having a pet’s care legally decided in advance is the surest way to avoid a pet-related dispute in case there’s a divorce. An experienced Orange County family law attorney can help a couple create a proper prenuptial agreement – or even a postnuptial agreement – regarding family pets and almost anything else that’s important to them.
If there’s no prenuptial agreement and your divorce will mean a fight about a pet, or if you are still fighting with an ex about a pet after a divorce, get trustworthy legal advice. Under California law, you will likely retain the ownership of a pet you owned going into a marriage. There is no legal recognition or provision for custody, visitation, timesharing, or any approach to pets except as items of property.
If the pet was purchased during the marriage, it will be considered marital property even if only one spouse is the sole registered owner. If you keep a dog that’s considered marital property, your ex will receive an asset from the marital property to offset the “loss.”
The sole exception to that approach in California might be in a divorce with a child who has developed an emotional attachment to a family pet, because under California law, in any case that involves a child, that child’s “best interests” must always be the court’s highest priority.
Each family and each divorce is different, so a divorcing spouse who is fighting for a pet must have the specific insights and advice of a California family lawyer with extensive experience representing clients in divorce-related legal disputes.
When you divorce, if you must fight for your pet, you must be represented by an attorney who understands your feelings and anxieties. Your love for your pet isn’t silly or trivial, so you must have an attorney who understands. When you choose to divorce in southern California – or if your spouse makes that choice – immediately obtain the advice and legal services of a trustworthy and experienced Orange County family law attorney. You deserve top-quality legal representation through every stage of the divorce process, and so does your pet.