In a couple days, a new divorce law goes into effect in California that reflects something I’ve been seeing for decades; it is a good thing. As of January 1st, judges in divorce cases for which the custody of pets is involved will take what’s in the best interest of the pets’ welfare into account in their decision. In the past—and in states without the new law--pets have essentially been treated as dividable property, the same way belongings like jewelry, furniture or art would be.
For animal lovers, the law is advocating treatment that’s logical and humane. After all, just like a young child, a pet needs love, care, and stability. Frequently, one half a couple can provide that more than another. There are also geographical factors to consider, like, say, proximity to a dog run or compassionate veterinarian. The upheaval of moving to a new home could also be a potential issue.
In the past, and in states without this law, elements of how to decide pet custody have included who purchased and paid for the pet and whose name appears on the pet’s license. In some cases, each member of couple have stood on opposite sides of a courtroom, with the dog placed in the middle to see which person the pet will run to. (It’s not hard to imagine that a few dog treats in one person’s pocket might help attract a dog like a magnet.)
But there’s a key difference between pets and people: dogs can’t speak for themselves. They can’t, as a child might in a custody dispute, distinctly articulate feelings or demonstrate lowering grades at school. An advisor or counselor at school can’t testify; a psychologist can’t share findings. And the new law applies to all pets; a dog or cat is more able to express discomfort (by, say, barking loudly, or straying from a litter box) than many animals that are customary household pets, like fish or hamsters.
Pet custody has been a heated issue in many cases I’ve handled, both for famous clients and not so famous ones. Since the new California law may inspire other states to consider pets in a similar way, it’s important for pet owners who are considering a divorce to keep track of their role in their animals’ lives. That includes details like which member of a couple feeds pets, walks dogs, and maintains their grooming and cleanliness. Although pets can’t speak, people can, and those details are vital in deciding pet custody in any state.