Okay, Now Who Gets the Dog?
Pet Custody Laws are Evolving
In the fall of 2018, California's Governor signed a bill empowering the California courts to take into consideration the care of pets in family law cases regarding the dissolution of marriage or legal separation.
Prior to the signing of the new law, California domestic relations law generally required that couples divide all property that was acquired during the marriage. And the equal division of property according to the law also included companion animals. Pets were to be divided equally between the disputing parties, and the division was held to the same standard as other items of personal property like automobiles, electronics, or furniture.
The new legislation, AB 2274, which went into effect on January 1, 2019, has amended California's Family Code to differentiate companion animals from these other kinds of marital assets. Under the new law, the courts will also be allowed to create "shared custody" agreements for companion animals, as well as to enter an order requiring a party to care for the animal prior to the final determination of ownership.
California is the third state to pass legislation providing guidance to courts regarding the interests, well-being, or care of companion animals in family law proceedings. Alaska passed similar legislation in 2016, and Illinois in 2017. Will Colorado be next?
Colorado Law Regarding Pet Custody
In the State of Colorado, the equitable division of assets and the allocation of parental responsibility are the central components of the divorce process. But many couples with family pets also have tremendous difficulty deciding who gets the custody of their beloved animals. According to Colorado law, pets are personal property, and they are governed by the law of equitable distribution of assets.
While there are guidelines in place for dealing with issues related to child custody in Colorado, this is not the case when deciding who gets custody of the family pets. Since there is no legal governance in such situations, a pet custody dispute can proceed in many different directions.
Under most pet custody circumstances, the court will ask the parties to decide the matter, but the judge can still maintain discretion in these matters when an agreement between the parties cannot be reached.
Some judges may decide the matter by considering the best interests of the pet. This is similar to the way courts rule on child custody cases, i.e.: using the best interests of the child statute. When deciding who gets the family pet, the court may also consider factors that include who paid for the pet, whose living arrangement is best for the pet, who can spend the most quality time with the pet, and who can afford to offer the pet the best care. Other considerations by the court may also include who has historically paid for the veterinary bills, and who is has been the pet's primary caretaker, i.e.: dealing with the daily maintenance of feeding, grooming, exercising.
If you are currently involved in a divorce or legal separation, and pet custody is going to be an issue, it is wise to have an attorney who can work with you and present your case in the best possible manner. For pet custody matters in issues regarding divorce and legal separation, call Elissa Bercovitz at Berc