Who Gets Custody of the Family Pet in a California Divorce?

A common issue that faces couples and families going through a divorce is what will happen to their pets. For some, this particular argument can be as emotional as custody of children. A lot of my clients are surprised to learn that the California legislature, and therefore the law that applies in court, considers animals to be property. As a family law attorney, it’s my job to advise you of this law. . . but as a devoted dog-mom, I’m rather pupset with these circumstances.

Animals as “property” is not the way it has to be here in California. As of January 1, 2018, Illinois became the second state to pass legislation treating animals more like children in family court. Alaska was the first to pass similar legislation. In those states, litigants may request custody of their pets under a “best interest” or “well-being” standard. This approach better reflects how people feel about their companion animals – in my experience, most pet-parents will not easily entertain the notion that pets are property. Kudos to Illinois and Alaska, but if you’re in California, what are your options?

California courts won’t make or enforce orders with regard to custody of pets unless you reach an agreement with your co-pet-parent. Recently, I had a client agree that the family dog would travel with the children between time with mom and dad. It was a good solution for a family who all really loved their pet. Not to mention, it is probably good for their young children to have the stability of their beloved dog while they are getting used to having two homes.

An exception to the rule above is when domestic violence is involved. A person who requests domestic violence restraining orders can request care of animals, and the court will consider that request. In most cases, the pets need as much protection from the abuser as the victim. On the flip side, I’ve seen a situation where a party had multiple dogs come under the protection of a restraining order, with no way to seek “custody” of the pets he considered children. Would a “best interest of the pet” standard change this outcome?

California is generally known for being progressive. But in the case of pet custody, our Golden State has fallen behind our neighbors. Hopefully, it won’t be long until we follow their example, and implement a pet custody standard of our own.

For more on this topic see our video blog below and this post by my colleague Neil Forester.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keeley Nickelson an attorney with FORESTER PURCELL STOWELL PC, a Northern California law firm focused exclusively on specialized counsel for complex divorce and family law issues. The firm regularly represents business owners, professionals, and other high net worth individuals (or their spouses) in divorce, premarital agreements, and related actions. Keeley can be reached at info@foresterpurcell.com or 916 293 4000. This information is general in nature and should not be construed as legal advice.
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