Pet “custody” is a common issue for couples contemplating divorce. When it comes to pets, it is a matter of ownership rather than custody. Pets are considered to be personal property so families facing pet-custody disputes have to be resolved in civil, not family, court.
There is a growing tendency among judges to decide on the “ownership” of a companion animal based on the interests of the pet. California Family Code Section 6320 protects domestic animals if evidence indicates that one of the parties may cause harm to the pet. California courts state that “physical abuse is not just hitting. Abuse can be kicking, shoving, pushing, pulling hair, throwing things, scaring or following you, or keeping you from freely coming and going. It can even include physical abuse of the family pets.” (see Domestic Violence)
When it comes to pet ownership, a prenup that clearly states ownership of the pet, shared costs for maintaining a pet (veterinary bills, boarding, end-a-life decisions, etc.) will prevent problems down the line. Similarly, California family court judges will sign off on most divorce settlements that are mutually agreed to by couples. Having the “care and feeding” of the family pets clearly stated is the best way to avoid future conflict. In cases where children have a great attachment to a pet, the best interest of the child should factor into the decision of who keeps the pet.
If the animal belonged to you before marriage, or if the pet is a companion animal, the pet is generally considered to be your “property.”