Divorcing With Pets

Going through the child custody process to determine custody of a child is often the most emotionally difficult part of a divorce. Figuring out what to do with pets acquired during the marriage can be just as difficult, especially when there are no children involved. You consider your pet as a part of your family. You have cared for the pet like a child. Both you and your spouse may feel a special connection with the pet. So what happens with pets during a divorce?

If you are an animal-lover like me, it may come as a surprise to know that, under California law, pets are treated as property and are divisible under marital property laws. Ownership of the pet may become an issue during a contested divorce. Questions that will need to be addressed include when the pet was acquired (i.e., before, after, or during the marriage) and how the pet was acquired (e.g., purchased with community funds, given as a gift, inherited). You should look to adoption papers for rescues and registration papers for purebreds to see whose name appears on the paperwork. If you breed animals for a living, it is more likely that they will be treated as business assets than personal property.

There are no legal concepts of “pet custody” or “pet visitation” in California. For this reason, you should try to work out an agreement with your spouse so that both parties’ concerns can be addressed. Your pet(s) can be included as part of your divorce agreement that divides your assets/debts, addresses child custody, etc. You can identify whether you will have joint physical custody of the pet, whether one of you will have sole physical custody of the pet, etc. Once you figure out who will get the pet, you might consider setting up a pet custody agreement with a “visitation schedule” similar to a child custody parenting plan. If there are children involved, you might consider putting the pet on the same schedule as the children. If there are two pets that will be split up (i.e., each spouse taking one pet), you might consider joint play dates on the weekends so that the two pets maintain contact if they were bonded. You should also address costs of care (e.g., food, veterinary expenses, pet insurance, training) so that the responsibilities are clearly defined. You should consider addressing end-of-life decisions, such as the decision whether to euthanize, to avoid an ugly fight during an already difficult time. You should seek the advice of a family law attorney or mediator to help you write the “custody agreement.”

Finally, in cases of domestic violence, your pet can be included on a domestic violence restraining order. There is actually a whole section on the form regarding pets. You can seek orders regarding exclusive care, possession, and control of the pet as well as a stay-away order for the pet. Unfortunately, pet abuse is all too common in cases of domestic violence and such protections are often necessary.