Pets are an important part of families but were traditionally a minor legal matter when couples ended their marriage. California has changed this by enacting a new law ensuring that pet care is considered when a divorce is underway and after the decree is issued.

Pets were legally considered as property that had to allocated like other assets. In California, any pet acquired during marriage had to be awarded to one of the spouses. But, visitation rights were often granted.

The new state law will allow a court to take the pet’s well-being into consideration while deciding custody. A spouse may ask a court for sole or joint ownership of the pet based on its care. This is considered as preventing harm or cruel acts and providing food, water, veterinary care and providing adequate shelter. A spouse may also seek an order requiring one of the marriage partners to care for the pet before the divorce is final.

Opponents of this measure, such as the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists, argued that this will issue add to the existing delays and legal disputes over divorce in courts. In addition to making complex decisions over child custody and property division, judges will also have to take time to consider the arguments over awarding pet custody. Litigation over this issue is additional and complex work, according to opponents.

The law will take effect next Jan. California’s law is like laws enacted in Alaska and Illinois. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the San Diego Humane Society and other supporters anticipate that this new law will lower the number of homeless animals.

An attorney can help a spouse negotiate or litigate pet custody and other divorce issues. Legal representation may help increase the likelihod of a fair and reasonable decree.