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Pets now legally considered more than “property” in divorce

It seems as though California should have been at the forefront of recognizing pets as the beloved family members they are for most of us when decisions have to be made about their fate in divorces. However, we're finally catching up to Alaska in how family law views them.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a law that recognizes pets as more than "property" to be divided like art collections, furniture and stock options. Judges now have legal permission to consider their well-being, needs and which of their humans they're most closely bonded with when asked to determine who will be allowed to keep them or how their care will be shared.

Under the new law, a judge can initially make a ruling on which spouse will care for the animal until the divorce is finalized. That may not be the same spouse who ultimately gets custody of the pet. However, it can help ensure that the person who's best able to care for it for the time being can do so. This can also help prevent abuse or neglect by someone who may be asking to keep their spouse's beloved pet only to get back at them.

When it comes to the long-term custody decision, according to the new law, if a spouse requests, judges are required to "[take] into consideration the care of the pet animal" when determining whether the couple will share custody or one spouse will be awarded sole custody.

As with all issues involved in divorce, it's generally best when a couple can work them out, with the guidance of their family law attorneys, without getting a judge involved. However, if you aren't able to do that, it's important to know what state law says about what happens to your non-human family members as you and your spouse go your separate ways.

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