Every divorce in California will eventually address the division of community property owned between spouses. While plenty of pet owners don’t think of their animals as property, the law certainly sees it that way. So, when it comes to dividing up assets and belongings, any family pets the couple owned during their marriage get included in this equation.
It can sound rather cruel, but the reality is that until 2018, things were much worse if you were a pet owner who considered yourself more of a caretaker, guardian, or even a “pet parent.” Until then-California Governor Jerry Brown approved the addition of Section 2605 to the California Family Code, pets involved in a divorce were treated no differently than clothes, books, or a commemorative plate collection.
While judges could previously order joint ownership over a pet, the animal’s welfare was anything but a required consideration for the courts – perhaps barring convictions for animal cruelty. The focus was more on dividing ownership of the pet for the sake of dividing community property. In that vein, judges could pretty much flip a coin and as long as the assumed value of the pet was accounted for in one party’s half of the community property, the other party could be assigned complete ownership of the animal.
Section 2605, however, changed how courts approach the ownership of pets in divorce settlements. When spouses are divorcing or legally separating, the statute states that the court “may assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.” That last part – “taking into consideration the care of the pet animal” – is kind of a radical shift in how courts are required to evaluate pet ownership disputes in a divorce.
Fido and Princess are still considered property, but no longer are they looked at the same as a vintage set of Hummel figurines. The courts must take into account whether one spouse or both can provide care that protects them from harm and cruelty as well as food, water, veterinary care, and shelter. If both parties are capable, then the court may assign joint ownership if it determines it’s within the pet’s best interest to do so.
If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like how child custody orders are determined, you’re not wrong. We’ve already discussed how joint ownership of a pet is possible, and it often works similarly to a joint child custody arrangement. Visitation rights can even be granted to one spouse if the other gets full custody of the animal.
Is Pet Ownership a Factor in Your Divorce?
The addition of Section 2605 to the California Family Code is essentially an affirmation that although our pets are property, they are different because they have needs as living beings that should be met by capable people. If you are involved in a dispute with a spouse over who is more capable of caring for your pets after the divorce, our attorneys at Claery & Hammond, LLP may be able to help.