Divorce and Pets

An essay on the subject of pets and divorce published earlier this month at The Huffington Post has been blogged and commented-upon widely over the last ten days or so. The article, by Jill Brooke (an author who describes herself as a “Blended Families Expert”), looks at the increasing prevalence of pet-related issues in divorce cases.

“According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, attorneys have seen a 23 percent jump in pet custody cases,” Brooke writes. A similar analysis at the pet-focused website Paw Nation notes that “today half of the 190 accredited law schools in the United States, including Harvard and Yale, offer courses in animal law” – a field that barely existed as recently as a decade ago.

Brooke presents a long string of anecdotes outlining the strife that pet custody can cause in a divorce proceeding. She writes that “dogs used to be viewed as property… But now courts realize that pets are members of the family and their best interests are being considered.” That, however, is not an entirely accurate reading of the law, at least here in Orange County and elsewhere in California.

Perhaps the problem is one of terminology. We talk of “custody”, and we may think in those terms regarding pets but, legally speaking, your dog and your kids are very different things. It is true that, here in California, legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 (SB 353) allowed courts to issue both custody orders and restraining orders in relation to pets. It is also true that many California divorce settlements contain provisions specifically related to pet custody and visitation. None of that, however, changes the fact that animals, legally speaking, are property and deciding who gets the pet is a property division issue. The terminology (“custody”, “visitation”) may be similar but the standards for deciding who gets the dog or cat should not be – and, indeed are not – the same as deciding which parent a child should live with.

Terminological distinctions like these are among the most important issues an Orange County divorce lawyer can help clients with. None of this is meant to minimize the emotional trauma that losing your pet in a divorce can engender. In negotiating an Orange County divorce, however, it is important to have the help of a skilled attorney who can help you understand how assets (pets included) differ from one another and who can help you sift through your own priorities in deciding what, exactly, is most worth fighting for.

The Huffington Post: Who Gets the Pet in a Divorce?

Paw Nation: Who gets the dog in a divorce?