Californians love their pets, and many of us think of our animal companions as almost like our children. When pet owners divorce, they often get into emotionally wrenching arguments about who will get custody of the pets.

While these pet disputes can resemble a child custody dispute in some ways, the legal framework is very different. Until fairly recently, the law had almost nothing to say about pet ownership rights in divorce. Pets were considered as just more property to be divvied up in the property division process at the end of a marriage.

This changed last year, when California’s new pet custody law went into effect. The new measure instructs courts to consider the best interest of the animal when awarding custody of a pet in divorce. This is somewhat similar to the way courts consider the best interest of the child when awarding child custody.

Animal lovers celebrated the new law, but it’s important to note that it has limitations. The law puts the decision in the hands of a judge, who doesn’t know the animal as well as the people who have lived with it, and may not fully appreciate the emotional connections between the animal and the humans involved.

For this and other reasons, it can be better for the owners to resolve pet custody disputes themselves through negotiation, with the help of their own attorneys.

Family law attorneys have witnesses a growing number of couples seeking to have pet custody disputes resolved in advance, as part of a prenuptial agreement. These so called pup nups decide in advance who will keep custody of the pets in the event of a divorce.

While some people find the thought of a prenuptial agreement unromantic, many people who have gone through the process of crafting one of these contracts find that it helps them strengthen their relationship by going into marriage with their expectations clear. And, in the event that the marriage ends in divorce, a prenuptial agreement can save a lot of time, money and emotional distress by deciding in advance how to split up the marital property.

Pet owners may find a pup nup is a good way to protect themselves and the animals they love.