Who gets the family pet in a divorce?

Posted October 27, 2014 in Estate Planning, Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

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October 27, 2014
Who gets the family pet in a divorce?
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If I had to ask you to put a price on your dog, cat or your pet hermit crab, could you? For some, perhaps they could but the vast majority would likely agree that their pets are priceless. However, disputes regarding who gets the family pet in divorce proceedings has become commonplace in family law.

Earlier this year, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas made a statement that they were ending their two-decade marriage but vowed to remain friends and to move forward lovingly. However, shortly after, reports surfaced that a custody battle was flaring up – not over their 17 year old daughter, but over the couple’s three dogs.

Although these days some people treat their pets better than their own children, in the eyes of the law pets are still only considered the property of their owners, much like their furniture is[1]. Legal experts agree that pet owners invest hundreds sometimes thousands of dollars and hours researching proper training, good food choices, and the perfect toys, groomers and veterinarians for their pets. Those same individuals might also take precautions with their estate by writing a prenuptial agreement. But how often do those pet owners think about legal issues associated with pet ownership?

Family law attorneys agree that the best way to handle a situation with a pet is to put it in a prenup. If you came into your relationship with Maxwell, put it in writing that if you are to leave the relationship Maxwell is coming with you. If you and your significant other purchased a pet together during the relationship, but you both agree that one of you should have the pet in the event of a breakup, a post-nuptial agreement would make sure that in the event of a divorce or separation the pet would go with the spouse more bonded with the animal.

Without something in writing, trouble could land you arguing in court. Last year a New York judge granted a divorcing couple the right to engage in oral arguments over pet custody for the first time in the state’s judicial history. The landmark legal showdown was ultimately averted. The couple settled out of court.

In the event of a heated breakup, pets can be protected.  If a party feels that he/she and the pet is in danger at the hands of the other party, California law provides for the family pet to be included on a protective order. Since 2008, courts have had the ability to make an order that the restrained person stay away from the pet. Family Code Section 6320 provides that upon a showing of good cause, the court may include in a protective order a grant of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by the spouse or minor child resident in the residence.

Family Code section 6320 makes strides toward addressing the established connection between animal abuse and family violence commonly referred to as the “Link.”[2] One of the first studies that described this Link found that of a survey of women with pets who had entered a shelter in northern Utah, seventy-one percent reported that their partner had threatened or actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets.[3]Another study of fifty of the largest shelters in the United States found that eighty-five percent of battered women and sixty-three percent of children with pets had experienced incidents of pet abuse.[4] An alarming consequence of these studies is that victims may feel that they cannot leave their abuser because they worry for the safety of their pets.

The Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich & Patton have decades of experience handling complex family law matters.  If you are interested in learning more about prenuptial or post-nuptial agreements, please contact the Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich & Patton for further information.  Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.


[1] Kimes v. Grosser (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 1556

[2] Am. Humane Ass’n, Learn About the Link, http://www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=lk_about (last visited Aug. 4, 2007); see also Senate Judiciary Committee, Committee Analysis of SB 353, at 2-5 (Mar. 27, 2007) (explaining the connection between animal abuse and family violence). There are also several studies that report that children who witness abuse, or are abused themselves, tend to, in turn, abuse animals. See Phil Arkow & Tracy Coppola, Expanding Protective Orders to Include Companion Animals 5 (2007), http://www.americanhumane.org/site/DocServer/PetsinPO2007.pdf? docID=5061 (describing the harmful effects upon children of witnessing domestic violence).

[3] Frank R. Ascione, Battered Women’s Reports of Their Partners’ and Their Children’s Cruelty to Animals, 1 J. Emotional Abuse 119, 125 (1998).

[4] Frank R. Ascione et al., The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of Shelters for Women Who are Battered, 5 Soc’y & Animals 205, 211-12 tbl.1 (1997), available at http:// www.syeta.org/sa/sa5.3/Ascione.html.

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