Many pets already have a place in family photos and a spot on the bed. Now, they’re considered more than just property in the District of Columbia divorce cases.

In April 2023, the Animal Care and Control Omnibus Act of 2022 became the law of the land in D.C. The Act, which was originally proposed in 2019, finally passed in early 2023.

It addresses a number of issues concerning animal care and contact, most notably elevating the status of pets to something more than property in a divorce proceeding. D.C. now joins other jurisdictions such as Alaska and California in applying a “best interest” standard to pets in divorce cases. 

Family Pets Are No Longer Simply Property

Prior to April 2023, in divorce cases, family pets were treated as property and largely awarded to the party that could establish that he or she was the legal owner of the family pet.

In many cases, ownership of the family pet tilted on evidence such as adoption paperwork and/or receipt(s) for the purchase of the family pet. This was largely distressing to some clients who had established significant bonds with family pets and had no redress for continuing ownership and contact.

D.C. Courts Now Apply a Best Interests Standard in Deciding Who Cares for and Owns the Family Pet Post-Divorce

The Animal Care and Control Omnibus Act of 2022 amended the D.C. law that governs assignment and equitable distribution of property in divorce cases.

Pursuant to the amended law, the D.C. Courts can (i) require one or both parties to care for the family pet during the course of a proceeding for divorce or legal separation; and (ii) assign sole or joint ownership of the family pet to one or both of the parties, taking into consideration the best interest of the family pet. 

The Statute does not provide guidance about what constitutes a pet’s best interest, but corollaries can be drawn from how the best interest standard has been applied to minor children in custody determinations.

What is a Family Pet?

Pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-910(b), a family pet is “any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet.”  That could and will include animals of many different species and breeds. 

Why Do Pets Still Fall Within the Equitable Distribution of ‘Property’ Statute?

The takeaway here is that although family pets are still property, they are the only property to be awarded or equitably distributed in a manner that suits the property’s (i.e. the family pet’s) best interest. That is most certainly an elevation in the standing of family pets in D.C. divorce law, not to mention a welcome change for many family pet owners.

Erik Arena is a divorce attorney who handles cases involving domestic relations and family law, including custody and visitation. For more information, contact Erik at [email protected].