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New Law Changes How Pets are Designated in Divorce Cases

San Diego, CA – If you wonder how much our pets mean to us, here is one clue: Americans spent more than $69 billion on pet products in 2017.

Perhaps that figure isn’t as strong an indicator of how much pets have become family members as a new bill signed into law in September by California Gov. Jerry Brown. The law moves pets from “family property” status to community property.

Family Lying on Grass ca. 2002
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This change, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2019, means that judges get to decide who keeps the family pets, and they will be allowed to weigh factors such as who feeds them, who takes them to veterinary appointments, who walks them, and who protects them, according to the Associated Press.

It is likely that many judges welcome the law. Stories abound of judges’ creativity in trying to determine pet custody when divorcing spouses couldn’t reach an agreement on their own, the AP article stated.

Some judges have put the dog between the spouses in an effort to determine which person it liked the best. Families with two pets often had the judge suggest splitting them up. In other cases, judges have ordered shared custody where each spouse gets the dog for a week or a month at a time.

California Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) introduced the bill earlier this year. The bill requires judges to take an animal’s interests into consideration during divorce proceedings and allow joint ownership of a companion animal, according to a press release from Quirk’s office.

“There is nothing in statute directing judges to treat a pet differently from any other type of property we own,” Quirk stated in the release. “However, as a proud parent of a rescued dog, I know that owners view their pets as more than just property. They are part of our family, and their care needs to be a consideration during divorce proceedings.”

This bill comes at a good time. Family lawyers have reported an increase in pet custody hearings in court in recent years. In a 2014 survey, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported that pet custody hearings have increased 22 percent.

The law makes it possible for a spouse to petition the court for sole or joint ownership of the family pet.

“More and more people truly do view their pets as children these days,” said John Griffith, a San Diego family lawyer who has negotiated agreements between spouses that addressed pet custody. “Nowadays it’s common for people to hire dog walkers and pet sitters, to seek out pet-friendly accommodations when vacationing, and to send their dogs to daycare when they’re at work. They love their animals, and they don’t want them treated in divorce proceedings in the same way that it’s determined who gets the television or the patio furniture.”

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