Family pets and divorce in Pennsylvania – dogs are property in the eyes of the law, they are not treated as children

by Jonathan C. Noble, Esq.

Based on Pennsylvania equitable distribution law, if you come to the marriage with a pet, it will be your property if the marriage ends in divorce. 

Golden Retriever at the Museum
“A Golden Retriever at the Museum” appears courtesy of the artist Tom Mosser. Facebook Page: “A Golden Retriever at the Museum”.

In Pennsylvania, with limited exception, any property acquired during the marriage is martial property, subject to equitable distribution. This may include, but is not limited to money, real estate, retirement savings, furniture, artwork, dogs, cats, and other pets. In Pennsylvania, your family pet is treated as property, subject to equitable distribution, just like a piece of art, a piece of furniture, or a bank account. When a person owns a pet prior to getting married, the pet is normally considered pre-marital property. That means the person is entitled to keep the pet as their separate property upon separation or divorce.

In Pennsylvania, there will not be an enforceable “custody schedule” for your family pet. 

Dogs, cats and other pets are not subject to a custody schedule under Pennsylvania law.  Even though most people love their pets as if the pet was a child, the courts in PA do not treat pets as children. Any agreement regarding a custody schedule of a family pet upon divorce will not likely be enforceable in court. Of course, if the parties remain on good terms, they can informally decide whatever arrangement suits the dog and themselves.

Like everything else in a property settlement agreement, it never hurts to “think outside the box” where a family pet is concerned.

Just like a piece of furniture, an automobile, or any other piece of marital property, it is certainly possible to negotiate who will get the universally loved family dog. For example, if the other party wants an item that you may not particularly care about, perhaps a deal can be worked out whereby you would take the dog, but relinquish rights to the item coveted by the other party. “Pet visitation” is usually not a good idea in the context of a divorce, since it can prolong the ability of some people to move on with their life. It can also be another source of potential conflict.

Children, shared physical custody, and family pets. Something to think about. 

Many divorcing parties have a shared physical custody arrangement for their children. Sometimes family pets, (especially dog breeds that are historically good with children) travel back and forth with young children who spend time with both parents in two separate households.  Some label the dog a “transitional object”, which provides a sense comfort and security to children who now must spend time in two households through no fault or choice of their own. If the parties can agree to such an arrangement, and the children want to be with their family pet in both households, it is usually a positive experience in an otherwise negative situation for the children. Of course, the dog must have the right disposition to travel between households without problems.

Laws vary widely from state-to-state. Consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction for legal advice on the subject.  

In cases where the parties cannot agree on what happens to a pet, the courts are left to decide. Some states do recognize certain factors regarding where family pets should reside when parties separate and divorce. Courts may inquire as to who  primarily cares for the pet. This may include who usually feeds the dog,  takes it to the vet, walks the dog, etc. In rare cases, the court can order the pet sold, with the proceeds split between the divorcing couple.

The more issues resolved by the parties, without court intervention, the better. Normally, nobody knows your pet (or children) better than you do.

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