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The family pet often likes to be the center of attention, and that is starting to apply in some divorce proceedings as well. While the law in California and across the country still technically treats pets as property, the issues that courts consider in deciding who keeps an animal are becoming increasingly similar to child custody proceedings, as opposed to property division.

Lawyers report a notable increase in pet custody cases in recent years. Part of the reason seems to be that many people see a pet as the essence of family life. The question is what to do with it when the family unit breaks apart. When children are involved in the breakup, divorce courts typically ensure that the pet stays with the kids. But when there are no children, the evidence indicates that courts have been increasingly willing to make a determination in the best interests of the animal, while being sensitive to the emotional tug of war such decisions can evoke.

A few states, including California, have already addressed by statute some concerns when it comes to pets. Legislation in four states has centered on domestic abuse issues. The focus has been on both protecting the pets and safeguarding individuals covered by protection orders. The laws are said to have been spurred by instances where one party euthanized two pets for seemingly spiteful purposes toward the other spouse. Further, where pets have the potential to harm, protection orders have included directions to keep them at bay.

For California couples contemplating or involved in divorce proceedings, it may be that the best approach is to attempt to negotiate an equitable arrangement concerning pet custody. Because judicial guidelines are yet to be uniform, those litigants that are aware of the relevant law and procedures concerning property division and pet custody issues may have an advantage.

Source: KTRK Houston, "Divorce lawyers: Pet custody cases increasing," Feb. 29, 2012

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