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In most states, the family pet is legally nothing more than a piece of property.

For many pet owners going through a divorce, that's devastating information to find out -- especially if the other spouse is holding onto a family pet out of a sense of retribution or malice. Many pet owners consider their "fur babies" to be much more than mere animals. They're loving companions, confidantes and -- in a very real sense to some -- substitute children.

Soon, family court judges in California will start treating family pets with some of the same concern that human children are afforded in a divorce. Pet owners will be entitled to ask for temporary custody orders while a divorce is pending in cases where there's fear that the animal might be mistreated or neglected by the other spouse. Owners will also be able to ask for either sole or joint custody after the divorce is over, with an appropriate visitation schedule.

The new law, which takes effect at the start of 2019, was recently signed into being by California's governor after being promoted by a legislator who wanted to see pets recognized as true family members. In essence, the new law gives judges a playbook that they can follow when deciding on a pet's custody.

Pet owners seeking sole custody can bring evidence into court to show that they are the animal's primary caretaker and, therefore, the person who should ultimately have custody of the pet. For example, a dog owner could use witnesses to show the court that he or she is the person who feeds, grooms and walks the dog every day. Receipts and statements from the dog's vet could help establish that the spouse seeking custody was the individual most involved in the dog's medical care. If the tasks were more divided, then shared custody and a visitation schedule would be appropriate instead.

Couples seeking a divorce should keep these things in mind if the custody of a family pet is likely to become important. It may be smart, if you are planning a divorce, to document the care you take of the family pet, gather receipts for purchases of treats and toys and keep a log of the time you spend playing with the animal or otherwise tending to its needs. The more prepared you are for any custody issue, the better.

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