New California Divorce Law Recognizes Pets as Family Members

Friday, October 5, 2018
Laura Goldman, Care2 Causes
When a married couple divorces in most U.S. states, their pets are considered property, no different than, say, lamps, TVs or cars. Who gets to keep the pets is determined by the “legal owner,” which is the person whose name is on the adoption certificate or sales contract — and not necessarily the spouse who takes care of the pets or has a stronger emotional attachment to them.
These laws seem especially antiquated nowadays, since many of us consider our pets to be family members that can’t be compared to furniture and other objects. In 2017, Alaska became the first state to change its divorce laws to recognize this. Earlier this year Illinois did the same, and now California will become the third U.S. state to consider the best interests of companion animals in divorce cases.
The new law (Assembly Bill 2274), which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, changes California’s Family Code to allow courts to assign sole or joint ownership of pets while considering the pet’s well-being. Before a final ruling, courts will also be allowed to order one spouse to provide food, shelter and medical care for the pet.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk was inspired to introduce the bill earlier this year, because there was no existing statute directing divorce court judges to treat pets differently than inanimate property. “However, as a proud parent of a rescued dog, I know that owners view their pets as more than just property,” he said in a press release. “They are part of our family, and their care needs to be a consideration during divorce proceedings.”
Although California will still consider pets as community property, the judges in divorce cases will decide who gets custody of them based on factors such as who feeds them, takes them to the vet and on walks, and protects them from harm.
Without this law, judges have sometimes placed pets between their owners to see which one they favored. For couples with two pets, judges would sometimes suggest splitting them between their owners. “Or if there’s only one dog, a court may do like, ‘Okay, you get the dog a month at a time, a week at a time,” family law attorney Atousa Saei told the Associated Press. Unfortunately, in some cases when divorcing couples can’t agree to a custody arrangement, their beloved pets end up in animal shelters.
Pet custody hearings are a growing trend. There was a notable increase between 2009 and 2014, according to more than a quarter of the attorneys who responded to a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. In addition to dogs and cats, the attorneys said pets involved in custody hearings have included an iguana, parrot, turtle and python.
Opposing California’s new law is the Assn. of Certified Family Law Specialists, which, the Los Angeles Times reports, said it would overwhelm the family courts system, due to long arguments over which spouse was the better pet caregiver.
But animal welfare groups, including the San Francisco SPCA (SF SPCA), which actively supported Quirk’s bill, are very pleased it was signed into law late last month by Gov. Jerry Brown. “Today more than ever, people consider their pets as part of the family, not just personal property to be divvied up like an appliance or furniture,” Brandy Kuentzel, the SF SPCA’s general counsel, said in the press release. “When it comes to legal separation, it is important to consider the care of the animal.”
A similar bill is currently being considered in Rhode Island. As pets become recognized as family members, every state should stop considering them as property in divorce cases and allow courts to determine what’s in their best interests.