For many years, divorcing couples have wanted to fight for “custody” of the family pet or pets; however, these couples were frustrated by the law. As a general rule, legislation in all states has historically considered pets as property, just like couches and cars. Thus, since pets are property, the court does not have authority or jurisdiction to establish custody and visitation as is customarily done with children.
Over the years, there have been random judgments entered in various states wherein judges have made exceptions and awarded custody and visitation. Those judgments/orders remained in place primarily because they were not challenged. Those that were challenged did not prevail. For example, in 2002, a Pennsylvania Appellate Court set aside a “pet visitation judgment” because it ran afoul of the law. The appellate court held that it was, “analogous to having visitation with a table or lamp.” Again, pets have generally been considered as property in the eyes of the law
Despite decisions like this one and despite the long-settled law regarding pets, couples have continued to fight over pets in divorce cases. As a result, the courts and legislatures have been listening. They have begun to understand that pets are more like children than property. There are special pets to assist handicapped children and adults, disabled veterans and single adults, including elderly adults. There are also everyday pets who are simply loved and cared for, just like a child. This can be for a childless family or a family where the children are bonded to the pets. In sum, Courts are seeing that pets are important components of every household and therefore, should be treated as such, rather than being treated as property.
Again, judges often enter judgments that include consideration for pets but in these cases, judges have had to be crafty to accomplish the desired goals. Although courts, attorneys and families all agree that pets should be given a higher priority in divorces, the law has been lagging behind.
Well, now that is changing. Effective January 1, 2019, California passed legislation that will allow parties to petition the Court for custody and visitation of the family pet or pets. The Court will evaluate factors such as who cares for the pet, the family dynamics of the pet, etc. It sounds much like the Court is considering the “best interest” of the pets just as the Court would consider the best interest of a child.
This is great news and hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend and similar laws will be adopted in all states, including Florida. We are a pet family and our pets are loved and cherished, so I understand the difficulty of losing a pet under any circumstance. If this issue is important to you, make sure your legislator knows your position and support the adoption of this type of law.