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What happens to pets in a California divorce?

An issue that is often overlooked in the early stages of a California divorce is the disposition of pets. Occasionally, only one spouse wants to keep the family pet, and the issue is easily resolved. In many families, however, both spouses and the children form intense emotional attachments to the family pet. Sometimes, these attachments can be as difficult to resolve as issues of child custody, visitation and property division.

Most states, including California, define pets as property, and the disposition of the animals is handled as if the pet were a sofa or TV set. San Francisco has enacted an ordinance that defines the owner of an animal as its guardian, but very few communities have followed suit. The first option in resolving a dispute about possession of a family pet is not unlike resolving other disputes: the parties can attempt to resolve the issue between themselves, or they can resort to mediation.

If the issue is submitted to the court for resolution and if the judge is interested, the following factors can be argued: the need to care for the animal's health and welfare, the animal's age (subjecting an elderly animal, especially a dog, to a new home can be detrimental to the animal), separation from companion animals and the stress of long-distance travel.

One advantage of considering pets to be property is the effect of the 4th and 14th amendments to the federal constitution. Pets cannot be seized without due process and, if appropriate, payment of compensation.

Anyone who is facing the loss of a beloved pet in a divorce proceeding may wish to consult a lawyer who is knowledgeable about divorce and animal ownership issues. A capable lawyer can provide advice on the likely outcome of a court dispute and suggest ways to resolve the dispute without submitting it to a judge.

Source: americanbar.org, "Animal Custody Cases," Christine Garcia, accessed on Jan. 8, 2018

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