Going through a divorce is a very emotional process, especially if a couple has children and they need to negotiate a custody arrangement. However, it’s also complicated when a couple has a beloved pet and they need to decide who the pet will live with after the divorce. For many, especially couples with no children, they treat their pet as a family member. So, the reality of losing custody of the animal can be heart wrenching.

Pets treated as property

For years, in divorce cases, California treated pets just like any other piece of property, such as TVs or furniture. Courts assigned a monetary value for the pet, which came out of the assets of the spouse who purchased the pet or paid Fido’s adoption fee and the animal stayed with that person. If the pet was a gift from one spouse to the other, in a divorce, the person who received the pet as a gift likely kept it.

New laws change the approach

However, in January 2019, that approach changed when a new law allowed California courts to establish shared pet custody. In some cases where families have children, the pet may follow the same custody schedule as the children.

Not only that, but the law allows courts to evaluate how the animal is cared for in determining who will gain custody of the pet. So, if one person ignores the pet, does little to take care of it or abuses it, courts can rule that the other person in a divorce case gets custody of the animal.

California was third state to pass this type of legislation. Alaska and Illinois have similar statutes, but Illinois’ law goes a bit further in that it directs courts to consider a pet’s well-being in establishing custody.

Lawmakers also favored these new statues because they may reduce the likelihood of one party in a divorce using a pet as a pawn, to get the other party to agree to an unequal settlement because of his or her attachment to the animal.

It will be interesting to see if in the coming years more states take the same approach as California’s, passing similar legislation. It wouldn’t be a surprise as pets are more and more seen like human beings—an integral part of a family that divorcing parties both want to maintain a relationship with.