California is one of just three states where family law recognizes that pets are sentient beings who form attachments rather than property to be divided like bank accounts and art collections by divorcing spouses. That means if you and your spouse can’t agree on where your pet will live or how their time will be split between your homes, a judge is expected to consider what’s in the best interests of the animal when handing down a decision.
In the past, even in California, judges often chose the spouse who’d contributed the most financially to a pet’s care to be their primary caregiver –- even if the other spouse had a stronger bond with them and was able to give them a more loving home.
If you and your spouse end up in a California court fighting over custody of your pet, you may need to present the case that you have been the animal’s primary caregiver. You may even need to say that your spouse has had little or no interest in your pet and that they’re only trying to get back at you by fighting for custody – if that’s true. That can increase the rancor the two of you already feel towards each other.
When spouses can work out an agreement, it’s often best for everyone
If the two of you can work out a pet custody and sharing agreement – kind of like a parenting plan when a couple has children – you’ll save yourselves the time and expense of a hearing. More importantly, you’ll be more likely to do what’s best for your four-legged family member.
You may find that only one of you really wants the responsibility of caring for your pet or has the time. The other would be much happier being able to come by every Saturday and take them out on a hike or keep them for the day or weekend). Whatever you decide, it’s best to detail it in your agreement and include that in your divorce documents. That can help you avoid misunderstandings and conflicts later on.
Your family law attorney can help you negotiate this agreement. They can also advise you as you seek what is best for you and your pet.