Divorce Raises The Question of Who Gets To Keep The Family Pet

People in San Diego and throughout California often consider their pets to be an integral part of the family. This can present a problem when a couple seeks to divorce and they both want to keep the pet. Unfortunately, the family law code has not evolved in accordance with the way people treat their dogs, cats and other pets. That is, there are no specific laws in California to guide courts that are asked to decide – which party gets “custody” of the family pet. When a couple decides to divorce, there are a multitude of issues to address and resolve, many of them very significant and life changing. To protect your rights throughout the process, it is important to consult an experienced family law attorney who is familiar with the laws governing proceedings in the San Diego Area.

According to a recent article describing a potential “pet custody” battle between Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, there is one law in California relating to the issue, but it concerns domestic violence. Under the state code, if you file a restraining order against someone, you can ask for custody of the pet. Unfortunately, this provision fails to address an increasingly common question as to the ownership of the family pet in divorce. Courts often treat the question of pet custody as one of “property” – a notion that likely offends many dog and cat lovers. Ultimately, and sadly, the pet becomes one of the many assets to be divided between the separating parties.

Some courts will consider additional issues, such as whether one spouse or the other had the pet before marriage, who is the primary caretaker of the pet, and who has bonded more intensely with the family pet. In another recent case, a Manhattan Judge granted two divorcing women – who were arguing over the fate of their dog – the opportunity to present oral arguments on the issue (a first in the state’s judicial history). The Judge pointed out that dogs play an increasingly important role in our emotional lives. In this case, it appears that the court was trying to determine which spouse bore the greatest responsibility with respect to the pet and who is meeting his needs. The article likened the court’s review to questions that one would pose to parents during a child custody trial.

The Judge in this case sought oral arguments in this case because he believes that pet custody cases will increase in the future. The intention seems to be that the findings in this case would lay the groundwork for future pet custody cases. Unfortunately, however, the couple settled out of court thereby averting a “landmark legal showdown.” One way to prevent a contentious battle over the ownership of a pet in divorce is to draft a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement, to ensure that the parties are clear, up front, about who is entitled to keep the family pet.

When a couple decides to end a marriage, there are many details to work through. As with the case of pets, the law is not always so clear. In order to ensure that your rights are protected throughout the divorce process, it is important to contact an experienced family law attorney.

Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parties in divorce matters for more than 20 years. Doppelt and Forney, APLC serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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