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New law provides guidance regarding pets in California divorces

We Californians pride ourselves in being ahead of other states in many areas. However, one of those hasn't been the way that pets are viewed under the law in a divorce. That has changed thanks to legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown just signed into law. Illinois and Alaska have similar laws on the books already.

Currently under California law, and in most other states, pets are considered property to be divided along with the cars, furniture and artwork. Here in California, if an animal was acquired during the marriage, it is viewed as "community property." Couples still have to determine whether one spouse will keep the animal or whether it will take turns living with each of them. However, if the couple is unable to agree on a solution and a judge has to rule, they can decide the matter based on whatever factors they choose.

Under the new law, when making these decisions, courts are charged with considering the animal's welfare and which spouse is better able to care for it. "Care" is defined under the new law as including "the provision of food, water, veterinary care and safe and protected shelter," as well as things like the "prevention of acts of harm or cruelty." If one spouse is granted the right to be the animal's primary caregiver, the other may be granted visitation rights.

The legislation was spearheaded by Hayward Assemblyman Bill Quirk, who said, ‘I know that owners view their pets as more than just property. They are part of our family, and their care needs to be a consideration during divorce proceedings."

While some in the legal community contend that the new law just adds complications to an already-overloaded family court system, rescue groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) hope that it will reduce the number of pets who end up in shelters after their owners divorce.

If you and your spouse have one or more companion animals that you love and are used to spending time with every day, no determination of whose home they'll live in and how often each of you will see them is completely painless. However, it's worthwhile to understand the new law — particularly if you can't reach an agreement on your own and have to ask a judge to make the decision.

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Mohajer Law Firm, APC

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