Many pet-owners are quick to point out, “Our cat is another member of the family” or “My dog is like another child.” Pets inhabit a special place in our lives and hearts. However, family law is not always prepared to deal with our pet’s unique roles in our lives.
Most family law, such as the California Family Code, treat pets like property, to be divided per the terms of the couples’ property settlement. As UCLA School of Law Professor Eugene Volokh writes in a recent Washington Post article, “Generally speaking, family courts have been quite reluctant to consider ‘pet custody’ arguments; they much prefer to treat pets as property, to be allocated as part of a property settlement (like a car or a house), than as akin to children, for whom a custody decision should be made.” However, some courts are beginning to recognize that property division rules may not the best way to deal with pets, their needs, and their role in our lives. Instead, the courts are developing standards that more closely remember child custody and visitation standards, including the “best interest” of the pet.
In Hamet v. Baker, the Vermont Supreme Court adopted a “best interest” standard for best. Rooted in animal welfare law and case law, the best interest standard looks at practicalities such as the pet’s daily routine, comfort, and care, but it also considers the emotional connection between the spouse and the pet.
In contrast, California courts will treat pets as community property, with both spouses having a one-half interest in the pet. While California courts do have some judicial authority to avoid a Solomon-esque “splitting” of the pet, they are bound by the Family Code and case law.
It is often far easier for the couple to avoid a judge’s intervention and determine for themselves who will get the pet or how custody of the pet will be split. If the parties are having a hard time deciding how to deal with the family pet, experienced counsel can also help work out a division or custody schedule. This schedule should be memorialized in a written agreement or judgment.
For a free consultation regarding the family pet or any other family law issue, please contact the Law Office of Sean C. Sobottka at 310-735-9814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to speaking with you.
The Washington Post
Hamet v. Baker