Without question, we love our pets. They’re a sense of solace and unconditional love, especially while quarantined in the pandemic. In a marriage, they become part of the family, so it’s no surprise that pet custody turns into a point of contention in divorce.

In California, Family Code 2605 was enacted on January 1, 2019, to address these emotional ties to their companions. This code gives judges the power, in divorce cases only, to determine who gets the pets based on what’s in your “best friend’s” best interest. If you and your partner were not married in CA, this blog post most likely does not apply to you, and you will have to seek the legal advice of a civil attorney that handles claims regarding pets. Let’s explore this further.

Note: Technically, “pet custody” is not a legal term (“pet animal ownership” is the official verbiage), but we’ll use it in this article as it is commonly referred to outside of court.

Pets Aren’t Just Property

Before FC 2605, pets were treated like community property, typically divvied between divorcing partners. Basically, they were viewed the same way as inanimate objects like televisions, cars, or paintings. Whoever purchased, rescued, or adopted the pet was usually awarded its ownership in the divorce settlement. There was no legal guidance on custody or visitation schedules, though some California judges would make discretionary decisions on ownership based on the pet’s likelihood of receiving the best care.

Though pets still do not have any technical distinction from property, judges may now, as of January 1, 2019, “assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.” This means that the judge must take into account what’s best for the pet in terms of care and well-being when awarding sole or shared custody. The Court may even give temporary ownership to one “parent” during a separation or while the divorce is still in progress.

Essentially, the new law is designed to reflect how Californians care for and view their pets as members of the family—not just “property.”

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Pet Custody Factors

A judge can evaluate the following questions when determining who will be awarded custody:

  • Who typically feeds the pet?
  • Who typically exercises the pet (walks, play time, fetch)?
  • Who most often took the pet to veterinarian visits?
  • Who’s name is registered as the owner?
  • Who’s household can accommodate the pet with space and shelter?
  • Who’s emotionally connected to the pet?

To sway the decision in your favor, you should gather proof of the above. Also, consider any other factors related to the specific type of pet you have. For example, fish and birds may have specific care regimens that are different from cats and dogs.

Mediation as a Healthy Solution

Divorce can already be a highly stressful process. With pets in the picture, your emotions are likely to run high and can erode your prudent decision-making and misguide you away from achieving your true goals.

Instead, avoid using your beloved pets as pawns or power plays in litigation by resolving custody and visitation matters through an amicable divorce mediation. We understand the value and love for pets and can help craft an agreement through mediation that keeps your pet’s best interests at heart. Either as a divorce consultant or a mediator, we’d be happy to aid you in achieving a peace of mind.

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4 responses to “Who Gets the Pets? Unpacking Pet Custody in California Divorces

  1. Does FC 2605 apply to cohabitating couple, non-legally bound? My boyfriend and I broke up and I care for the cat. I want to do what is necessary to ensure I keep the cat. Thank you.

    1. Hi Myriam – that is a great question. No, FC 2605 does not apply if you are not married or domestic partners with your partner. The code is only applicable in the context of a dissolution of marriage/domestic partnership. If that does not apply to you, ownership of your pet can be handled as a separate civil matter or small claims court.

  2. How can I get my dog back my xwife took my dog before the hearing for a restraining order when I was video tapeing what she was doing to my dog cause the restraining order said about the dog was denied till court then she got me arrested cause she said I was harassing her cause I was videoing her so now what should I do I took care of the dog he is like my child. Can I still get him back I have receipts everything

    1. Hi Todd – even though a Court may make custody orders for a dog during your divorce, they are still treated like property. Therefore, if you can prove that you purchased the dog prior to marriage with separate property funds, you should be able to get a Court order returning the dog back to you. However, if the dog was purchased during marriage, you and your ex will need to come up with a plan on sharing the dog. Best of luck.

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