For many families, the family dog or cat is more than just a dog or cat, he or she is a member of the family. But what happens when you or your spouse decide to divorce? What happens to Rover? According to a new law, divorce in California might just be going to the dogs.

What Happens to the Family Dog During Divorce?

While the division of marital property is never easy during a divorce, it’s something that is manageable. There are rules governing how property is divided. California is a community property state, which means that each spouse is legally entitled to half of the marital estate in divorce, which includes both assets and liabilities classified as community property, or property acquired by the couple during the course of their marriage.

In every state except for Alaska and Illinois, the family pet is classified as property – just like the living room couch or the kitchen oven. What that means is the dog can be sold, just like any other piece of furniture, between the divorcing spouses. If you are a pet owner, you most likely take issue with this.

According to a new law that goes into effect in January, this view might be changing.

California Divorce is Going to the Dogs

Because pets are loved just like family members, custody of the dog can become a real bone of contention between divorcing spouses.  And because of that, it’s not uncommon for couples to make a decision that looks closer to a child custody arrangement than a property arrangement. Just as a custodial schedule is decided for children, a custodial schedule is decided for the dog. This custodial agreement will be laid out just as a child custodial agreement is – even when it comes down to what the dog will eat, where the dog will sleep, and who will pay for the

Under the new law, a judge will be able to settle disagreements just the same way they handle child-custody disputes.

Until now, pets have been considered family property, a status giving them little standing in a divorce.

Under a new bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, pets will still be considered “community property,” like the family couch, but a judge determining who gets to keep them will have the full discretion of weighing such factors as who feeds them, who takes them to the vet and on walks, etc… just as a judge would determine in a child-custody case.

How Does a Judge Decide?

Just as with any divorce agreement, the final decision will be made by a judge and based on his or her views on the subject.

In some cases, a judge will often look to see if the couple has any children. Judges often choose to acknowledge the value of the bond between a child and a pet and work to preserve that bond. In these instances, a judge might decide that the pet follow the same custody schedule as the child or award the pet to the parent who gets the most parenting time with the child.

When there are no children, chances are a judge will order a divorcing couple to sell the dog or have one party “buy” it from the other. This is where the fact that the law classifies family pets as property can be difficult.

Divorces that include family pets have been known to get ugly. In one case, a judge had the “parents” and dog taken to a park. The dog was let go on the leash while the “parents” stood on opposing sides of the park and were told not to call out to the dog. The dog eventually chose the woman and the husband was paid $500 for ownership of the dog.

In another case that turned contentious, neither party was able to give up their ownership of the dog. Just as a judge was about to call for the dog to be sold, both “parents” agreed to a decision – to share custody. The agreement specified the dog would go back and forth on a weekly schedule. In addition to a visitation schedule, holidays, vet bills, and dog food specifications were also written into the divorce agreement.

A Note on Prenuptial Agreements

The existence of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement may override California’s equal division of marital property provision depending on what terms were decided upon in that agreement. Furthermore, any separate property, including gifts, inheritances or other assets owned by the spouse prior to the marriage, is typically not subject to California’s community property laws. Depending on when the family pet was brought into the home, he or she may not have been written into the prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. If the pet was included in that agreement, then the deciding court will most likely follow that agreement.

As always, you’ll want to prepare for your divorce. If you and your spouse are able to come to an agreement about the family dog, it will not be left to a judge to decide – which is ideal for both parties. But if neither one of you is able to come to an agreement, it will be left to a judge to decide.

Marital Assets and Debts Besides the Dog

When you get a divorce in California, you and your spouse will be required to make an exhaustive list of your property, assets and debts, both community and separate. “Community property” means all assets purchased or acquired by a couple during the course of their marriage are owned equally by both of them. This is the case regardless of how the asset is titled – even when it’s the family pet.  “Separate property,” also called “Non-marital property” is any property, real or personal, that was acquired before marriage, after divorce (or in some states by separation of the spouses before divorce), by gift or inheritance during the course of the marriage, or during marriage with separate property funds.

In order to fairly divide what is considered by law to be your marital property, you and your spouse must be honest and forthcoming about disclosing your accumulated assets and debts. Any attempt to hide income or failure to disclose assets may result in serious legal consequences and will only further complicate the divorce and property division process. As you are preparing for the divorce process, it may help to create a preliminary list of your property and assets, so you are fully prepared when asked to present the final valuation of your marital property.

Under California’s community property law, in the absence of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement, you and your spouse will be entitled to exactly one half of what is determined to be your community or marital property. Some marital assets will be fairly easy to divide. For instance, if you and your spouse own two vehicles, each spouse may be awarded one of the vehicles, though there may be some contention here if one of the vehicles is worth a great deal more than the other. In cases such as this, the couple may agree to sell one or both vehicles and split the proceeds evenly. There are many ways in which a divorcing couple can make the divorce process easier and far less messy and contentious, the most important being their ability to agree to the equal distribution of these assets on their own or with the help of an attorney, without going to court.

Handling Property Division Disputes in LA

Unfortunately, there are many types of marital property that are not so easy to divide right down the middle. For instance, the family pet, as we’ve discussed, in addition to the family home, accrued employee retirement benefits, valuable items you received as gifts for your marriage, and family businesses are some examples of community property that is not easily split up. You may both want to keep the family home, or your spouse may want to sell the property and split the profit. There are provisions in place in California’s divorce code that lay out how splitting up community property that cannot be divided equally should be handled. For example, if your spouse is awarded the family home, California law stipulates that you must receive property that is equal in value to the home. It is in these types of situations that having a knowledgeable Los Angeles divorce attorney on your side is imperative.

Prioritizing Your Marital Property and Assets

The most important thing to do when preparing for a divorce in Los Angeles is taking the time to prioritize your assets so you know what property you own, what you’re willing to give up and what is most important to you to keep. This can help make what would otherwise be an overwhelming and complicated process simpler, more streamlined and less contentious. And even though you and your spouse are preparing to separate, it is still important to be open and honest about your expectations during this process, including what property you absolutely want to walk away with when the divorce is finalized. If you and your spouse are unable to communicate effectively without making matters worse, you may want to consider using a third-party mediator or a collaborative divorce process to settle your divorce.

Couples in Los Angeles who can’t agree on how their property (including the family pet) and debts should be divided in divorce will likely end up going to court, where a judge will make the decision for them. Although our attorneys at Divorce Lawyers Los Angeles typically advise couples to attempt to work with one another to reach an amicable solution to their property division issues, we are always prepared to go to trial on behalf of our clients and represent their best interests before the court. Our lawyers have extensive experience representing clients in all areas of family law, and we can help ensure that your marital property is divided fairly. Furthermore, we can ensure that any separate property or assets you owned prior to the marriage remains under your control after the divorce. Whether you handle your own property division and assignment, or a court makes the decisions for you, there are three important steps to the process:

  • Determining whether the property (assets and debts) is marital or separate;
  • Agreeing on the value of the marital property; and
  • Deciding how to evenly divide the marital property.

Free Property Division Consultation in Los Angeles

For many Los Angeles couples, getting divorced is a chance to be freed from an unhappy or abusive marriage, but having your marital assets divided 50-50 under California’s community property laws may not afford you the financial freedom you expected. For more information about filing for divorce in Los Angeles and how marital property division works, contact the experienced family law attorneys at Divorce Lawyers Los Angeles. With our legal team on your side, you can safeguard your financial freedom and ensure that your marital assets are divided fairly and equitably. Contact us today at (213) 550-4600 for a free initial consultation.

Divorce Lawyers Los Angeles

5455 Wilshire Blvd
21st Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Phone: (213) 550-4600