With AB 2274, California Becomes Third State to Treat Pets More Like Children During Divorce Proceedings

The new law goes into effect January 1, 2019, adding Section 2605 to California’s Family Code and requiring judges to consider a companion animal’s best interests in divorce disputes.

With the legislative session wrapping up this weekend and his legacy on the line, Governor Jerry Brown has been busy. Not too busy, of course, for his daily walk with First Dog Colusa, who on September 27, 2018, reminded Brown that AB 2274 was still sitting on his desk. The Governor’s Corgis have often been in the spotlight during his tenure, so it came as no surprise that Brown signed AB 2274, which will give courts more guidance on how to treat pets during divorce proceedings.

In all seriousness, though, AB 2274 has the potential to drastically change how we treat pets in divorce and how we practice family law. The bill, authored by Assemblymember Dr. Bill Quirk (proud parent to a rescue pup and #adoptdontshop advocate), is set to go into effect on January 1, 2019.

Traditionally, pets have been considered property in family law proceedings. Because of that, it was impossible for litigants, many of whom love their pets like children, to convince judges to take their pet’s best interests into account.

That will now change: California courts now must take the “care” (defined as including, but not limited to, the prevention of acts of harm or cruelty, and the provision of food, water, veterinary care, and safe and protected shelter) of the animal into consideration.

This is not an altogether novel concept. The Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA) has allowed victims of domestic violence to apply for care of animals within the confines of requesting a restraining order. But the animal could only be assigned as a piece of property. Considering what we know so far, AB 2274 does nothing to alter the DVPA itself — only adds to it.

In my opinion, the most interesting part of AB 2274 is that it contemplates parties sharing the animal:

“the court … may assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal.”

THIS is a novel and extraordinary concept. As a family law attorney, I’ve had to tell many clients that, unfortunately, the court treats animals as property and therefore, unlike children, their “best interests” will not be considered. I’ll point out that the language in the statute is joint ownership, not joint custody. The statute maintains pet animals as property. But now, solutions that were available only by stipulation before could be ordered by the court under the new law. For example, the family dog may travel with the children when parents exchange, or Fido might visit the non-custodial parent every other weekend.

For now, the possibilities are endless. Theoretically, any custodial plan that you may exercise with children could be exercised with the beloved family dog or cat. There’s no way to know, of course, how judges and courts in California will handle this new law.

In the meantime, we are proud of California for joining Alaska and Illinois in acknowledging that our pets are more than just property; they are part of our family.

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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. Follow FPS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @law_fps
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