California’s community property laws can present unexpected issues in a divorce. How does a couple divide a valuable work of art? Or divide a valuable antique piece of furniture? And what about the family dog or cat or parrot? Until this past year, California judges treated pets as personal property and awarded custody of them as if the animal were merely an item of personal property. A new law becomes effective on January 1 that will change all this.

After January 1, either party to a divorce can request the court to determine custody of a family pet based on the care that the animal will receive. Under the new law, the court can assign sole or joint custody of the pet based upon its finding as to which party is better able to provide adequate care to the animal. Adequate care includes prevention of harm or cruelty and the provision of adequate food, water, veterinary care and safe and protected shelter. The statute is not restricted to cats and dogs; it applies to any animal that is treated as a family pet.

In the past, judges were often at a loss as to how a pet should be treated in a divorce. Some judges treated animals as pieces of personal property, and custody was awarded without regard to the animal’s welfare. Other judges simply directed the parties to share custody by shuttling the animal back and forth. The new law provides statutory guidance for both judges and the divorcing spouses from the point of view of the pet.

Pets are often regarded as full-fledged family members, but the degree of attachment felt by the animal’s owners is not always obvious until divorce proceedings are well along. Anyone contemplating a divorce that may involve deciding which spouse receives the family pet may wish to explore the issues with an experienced divorce attorney.