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Courts allowed to factor pet well-being into custody decisions

Judges in California will soon have more issues to consider when awarding pet custody in divorce cases. A new state law that was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on October 18 allows judges to base their pet custody decisions on matters pertaining to the pet's well-being.

Until now, judges have tended to grant custody of a pet to whichever spouse bought or adopted it. But under the new law, there is more room for emotional considerations. For example, a judge might consider which person spends the most time with the pet, takes it to vet appointments and cares for it at home. The author of the bill says that while pets are still property, it is important that their well-being is taken into consideration.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals supports the legislation, stating that it could decrease pet homelessness. Divorcing couples sometimes end up giving their pets to shelters or selling them when they cannot agree on custody.

Opponents of the measure argue that it will cause lengthy court battles over pet custody. They also claim the law is unnecessary because courts were already able to assign pet custody to either spouse.

Excluding pets, other matters of property division may not seem to be the most emotionally charged part of a divorce proceeding, but the process still can be legally complex. California is a community property state. Community property refers to belongings that were purchased during the marriage. Each spouse can also own separate property that he or she acquired prior to getting married. During the marriage, the status of separate or community property can be legally changed. For example, a car that was purchased by one spouse during the marriage could legally be designated as the separate property of that person. This is called transmutation of property. In property division during a divorce, transmutations might be challenged.

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