These days, many people treat their pets like they are children. Hence the term “furbabies.”
As a result, pet custody is becoming a frequent issue in divorce cases. It is not unusual for couples to fight over who gets to keep the family dog or cat after they go their separate ways.
Pennsylvania Pets Are Personal Property
In Pennsylvania and most other states, pets are treated as personal property during a divorce. That means deciding who gets custody of Rover is much like deciding who gets to walk away with the bedroom furniture.
Pennsylvania adheres to the rule of equitable distribution when divvying up property (and pets) in a divorce. Property owned by either spouse before the marriage is usually considered separate property and will be awarded to that spouse. Property that a couple acquires during the marriage is typically considered marital property subject to equitable distribution.
In Desanctis v. Pritchard, 803 A.2d 230 (Pa. Super. 2002), a couple specified in their divorce agreement that their dog Barney would live with the wife and the husband would be allowed to visit. However, the wife moved and refused to let her ex-husband see the dog. Ultimately, the judge refused to enforce the visitation rights.
“Despite the status owners bestow on their pets, Pennsylvania law considers dogs to be personal property,” the judge said.
Pet Laws in Other States
The good news for animal lovers is that pet custody laws are changing. Some courts treat beloved pets more like children.
Three states have laws that allow divorcing couples to petition the courts for custody of a family pet. Judges in these courts will consider the overall well-being of the pet. Then, they will decide who gets custody and visitation rights.
In Alaska, for example, state law requires judges to consider the pet’s best interests when deciding who gets custody. In California, judges can award full or joint ownership of an animal.
Many states are considering similar laws as dog and cat custody claims are becoming more common in divorce cases and Americans are becoming more attached to their pets.
Proving Ownership of a Pet
If you find yourself fighting over custody of a pet, there are some documents you can use to support your case:
- License and registration: The person who signs a dog license is viewed as the official dog owner in the eyes of the law. Papers showing that you purchased or adopted an animal can bolster your case, as can microchip records and a pedigree registration.
- Vet records: Are both spouses’ names on the vet records? If so, it indicates that you both took an interest in your pet’s health. The judge may look at who paid the vet bills in that case.
- Caretaking receipts: Pet store, doggy daycare, and groomer receipts can show that one spouse provided more care for a pet than the other.
A judge may look at other factors, including which spouse has the financial resources to care for the pet and who has the most time to spend with the animal.
When children are involved, the judge may award the family dog or cat to the custodial parent if the kids are attached and it is in their best interest to continue to live with the animal.
Emotional support or service animals should be certified to prevent the animal from being separated from the person who relies on the animal.
Making Custody Arrangements
It is important to note that pet custody after a divorce does not need to be litigated in a courtroom. Spouses can agree to a custody arrangement on their own or through mediation, even though such an agreement would probably not hold any weight in court if a dispute occurs later.
Any agreement should state who is responsible for pet food, vet bills, and other expenses.
Couples can also use a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement to determine pet ownership in case of a divorce. Although a judge is unlikely to enforce a visitation agreement, they will probably uphold any provisions specifying who retains ownership of the animal.
Indeed, losing a cherished dog or cat in a divorce can be devastating. If pet custody is likely to be an issue in your divorce, the family law attorneys at KingSpry can provide legal advice based on the specifics of your case.