Family Law Corner: Every Dog Has Its Day... in Court

Every Dog has its day… in Court

Olympic medalist Johnny Weir and his estranged husband Victor Voronov have agreed to share “custody” of their dog, a Japanese Chin named Tëma, after a very public airing of the details of their separation.   

Weir filed for divorce in March and obtained an order for the police to accompany him while he gathered his personal items from the parties’ home, including the dog.  Voronov promptly filed a motion for temporary support and for Tëma’s return.  In his filing, Voronov asserted that he was the primary caretaker of Tëma and is "extremely attached to him" and "devastated" by Weir's removal of the dog from their home. "I trained him, walked him, took him to the veterinarian," Voronov stated. "As a direct result of often being home alone while [Weir] was promoting his 'image,' it is Tëma that kept me company."

In California, pets are personal property under Civil Code §655.  Despite the fact that disputes over the family pet occur all the time in divorce actions, there is no published California family law case on the subject other than to confirm that pets are to be valued and divided like other personal property.  See Mears v. Mears, 180 Cal.App.2d 484 (1960).  California Penal Code §491 states that “[d]ogs are personal property, and their value is to be ascertained in the same manner as the value of other property.”

Voronov’s contention that he was closer to Tëma than Weir would likely be a good argument in California.  A Court may consider the “personal nature” of assets when making the division, including considering whether certain assets were personal and meaningful and for which one party had expressed a particular fondness.  See In re Marriage of Fink [Fink II], 25 Cal.3d 877 (1979).  In addition, a California court can consider whether the pet was a gift to one of the parties and therefore the separate property of that party pursuant to Family Code §770.  

In fact, Voronov stated in his pleadings that Tëma was a “make-up gift” after he caught Weir sexting with another man.  However, absent a determination that the pet is separate property or an agreement by the parties to somehow share a pet after a divorce, a Court is faced with a Solomonic decision.  This decision is especially hard in cases where the pet is viewed as a member of the family.