Dear Critter Chat,

I’ve been married for three year and my husband and I are getting a divorce. While we were married I bought a dog named Milo with money my mother gave me for my birthday. Last week my husband moved out of our apartment and took Milo. He says Milo belongs to him because he works from home and took Milo for all his walks, took him to the vet and the groomer, and fed him every day. I love Milo and want him back. Since I paid for Milo isn’t he mine??

–Leslie, Montebello

Dear Leslie,

Maybe yes, maybe no. Animals are considered personal property and California is a community property state (as opposed to an “equitable distribution state”), which means that property earned or acquired during a marriage is considered to belong to each person 50/50 unless and until someone can prove that it doesn’t (how’s that for lawyer-speak?!). It might boil down to whether you can prove that you bought Milo with money that was a gift to you and you only, that the money didn’t come from the community pot, and that you intended to keep Milo as your own separate property. To determine that the court may look at things like in whose name is Milo licensed, whose name is on vet bills, or whose name is on the groomer’s account.

While it’s probable a court will determine who gets to keep Milo based on property law, there have been a number of cases in which courts have taken the pet’s interest into account and considered where it would be better for a pet to live. In those cases courts have considered things like the pet’s safety, who will take better care of the pet, and who’s more attached. The fact that your husband has been Milo’s primary caretaker – and has a lot of time to spend with him – may factor into the equation and a court may decide that Milo should stay with your husband.

Since you don’t know what a court’s going to do, if there’s any way for you and your husband to work out a contract that spells out visitation, how bills for things like food and medical care are going to be split, and who’s going to be responsible for Milo’s “maintenance” (shots, teeth cleaning, etc.), that’d be the way to go. That way, even if you won’t have Milo on a full-time basis, at least you’ll get him on some kind of basis, which is more than what you might get if you leave the decision in the hands of a judge. If I were you I’d look into hiring a great mediator to help you and your husband reach an agreement. As one of the all-time great TV judges, Judge Judy, has said, “You should love your dog more than you hate each other.”  (Okay, JJ said “kids,” but as far as I’m concerned, the same concept applies when it comes to pets.)

Critter Chat is a weekly column from attorney Deborah Knaan, who seeks to answer your animal-related questions. Email questions to [email protected] with subject line CRITTER CHAT.