27 Apr Treating Pets as People in a California Divorce
Few people would disagree with the view that pets are often regarded as part of the family, to the extent that what to do with them when a divorce takes place can cause intense distress.
Until January this year (2019), California law has regarded pets in the same way as property when it comes to making decisions about them in the aftermath of a divorce. This has now changed. Pets are now considered more like people, rather than property, in divorce cases. Family court judges have now been directed to consider the ‘best interests of the pet’ when making a decision about who looks after the family pet(s) after a divorce.
Owner of the pet may not always get custody
Judges now have to consider which spouse is the best person to look after each individual pet, in the same way as they make decisions about child custody. They may decide that one or more of the pets are cared for by an individual spouse, or all of them. This could depend on such factors as the depth of the relationship that each spouse might have had with the pet, how capable they will be to care for them and other factors. Judges may take into consideration who took a dog for walks, who fed them or looked after them when they were sick or played with them as well as who paid the bills for keeping them fed.
Before Section 2605 of the Family Code became a reality on January 1st this year, a judge would most likely make custody decisions about pets based on who owned them. However, it was recognized that pets have feelings and relationships with their owners and carers that are often stronger than the feelings of the spouses themselves. This has led to California being the third state in the country to have an ‘in the pets best interest’ divorce law. California follows Alaska and Illinois in creating such legislation.
Disputes about dogs are the commonest
Disputes between separating spouses have been common for a long time. Some very expensive and lengthy litigation has occurred in California over disputes about who should look after a pet. The greatest percentage of legal disputes is over dogs, with a figure of nearly 90% of cases. Cats come second at around 5% of cases. Horse disputes are way down the list at 1%. Disputes have been known to take place about the custody of everything from parrots to pythons and rats to raccoons.
One of the longest and costliest divorce disputes over the custody of a pet in the state was between San Diego residents, Linda and Stanley Perkins. It took 2 years and about $150,000 in legal fees until a decision was made about who was to get their greyhound / pointer hybrid ‘Gigi’ after they divorced. A video was even made which showed Linda Perkins cuddling the dog and it sleeping happily under her chair at home. Linda Perkins got custody of the dog eventually and her ex-husband bought another dog of the same breed as a consolation.
Not everyone is entirely happy about the new law. Some family law attorneys think that disputes over pet custody could prolong divorce proceedings and clog up courts. Others have complained that regarding pets as part of the family is a ‘slippery slope’ and there may soon be disputes over goldfish or pet cockroaches, as well as larger animals. Reports from Illinois, where the law was introduced earlier than in California, seem to suggest that these concerns are unfounded and in any case, California’s laws are a little less rigid as judges are only expected to ‘consider’ the best interests of the pet and are not compelled to make a decision.
If you are about to have a divorce and are worried about a possible dispute over the custody of a beloved pet, you should discuss your concerns with a family law attorney at the Law Office of Damian Nolan. Contact his office in Orange County, California at 562-634-1115.