A new California law will soon give pets more rights during divorce proceedings. Thanks to AB 2274, which goes into effect on New Year’s Day, judges will have the power to consider the best interests of dogs, cats and other pet animals when overseeing divorce cases.

Until now, pets have been viewed as physical property during divorces. This has led to unfortunate situations where judges have recommended selling pets like assets or handed them over to spouses who weren’t bonded with them. The new law encourages judges to see pet animals as living beings who have feelings and preferences. As a result, a judge can now consider things like which spouse typically feeds, walks and plays with the pet and use that information to create a custody agreement that best meets the animal’s needs.

While some legal professionals fear the new law will further bog down the family courts with litigation, animal rights advocates are pleased. They note that divorcing couples have been fighting over pets for decades and the new law provides judges with the tools they need to compassionately settle such disputes. According to a 2014 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, around 88 percent of all pet custody battles involve dogs, while 5 percent of squabbles center on cats and 1 percent focus on horses. Six percent of cases involve “other” pets, including turtles, lizards, snakes, birds and fish. Alaska and Illinois are the only other states that have similar laws. The California bill was sponsored by a dog owner and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, who owns two dogs.

Individuals facing divorce may wish to contact a family law attorney for help. The attorney might protect a client’s interests throughout the divorce process and negotiate favorable agreements on pet custody and other important divorce legal issues.