Custody of pets in Pennsylvania after divorce or separation
Clients who are separating from their partner or spouse in Pennsylvania often ask us who gets to keep the dog after their relationship has ended. Courts across the U.S. have increasingly been tasked with determining whether pets are property or family and whether the family courts or civil courts will help decide who gets to keep them. Approximately sixty-seven percent of U.S. households own a pet. For most, their pets are considered family members, with some people even treating them like children.
Prior to the 1800s, animals were considered to have very little intrinsic value being seen largely as agriculture items for sale or use on a farm. However, since the 1800s, animals have gained a great deal of recognition in the legal system largely in the criminal law context. One such example being through states enacting animal cruelty laws.
Over the years, animals have been welcomed in homes in the U.S. and across the world. Some pet lovers even sporting signs that say, “I work hard so my dogs can have a better life,” or “all you need is love…and a cat.” So, what happens to pets during a separation or divorce in Pennsylvania?
Custody agreements regarding pets are unenforceable in PA
In 2002, the Pennsylvania Superior Court determined that agreements regarding the custody of pets are unenforceable. This is better known as the “Barney Rule,” Barney being the name of the dog that was involved in a custody battle after a man sued his wife to enforce a visitation agreement they entered into. As much as some of us may love our furry companions, pets are considered personal property in Pennsylvania. Therefore, even if you enter into an agreement for your pet to have visitation with your former spouse or partner, a Pennsylvania judge will not enforce this agreement, if your former spouse withholds custody of your pet in violation of your contract.
Since Pennsylvania Courts will not enforce pet custody agreements, is there any other way to determine who keeps fido or fluffy? Pennsylvania law indicates that pets are seen as tangible personal property much like a piece of furniture or a gun collection. If the pet was obtained during a marriage, Pennsylvania Family Courts can award the pet to either spouse during the process of equitable distribution of marital assets and debts. If a pet was purchased prior to the marriage, it is likely that the person who purchased the pet will be awarded the pet as a non-marital or pre-marital asset.
Unmarried couples must turn to civil courts to determine ownership of pets
Pennsylvania Family Courts will not assist unmarried couples in determining who should be awarded pets when their relationship breaks up. Instead, unmarried couples must resort to Civil Courts to enforce their rights to ownership of pets. In Pennsylvania, this often means filing a civil lawsuit with a local District Magistrate’s office and hoping that the Magistrate will order possession of the pet and not just a monetary judgment for the value of the pet.
Figuring out who gets to keep the beloved family pet and going through a separation or divorce in Pennsylvania can be very taxing but with our team of experienced family law attorneys we can help you navigate through the system and answer your questions. To schedule a consultation regarding your divorce matter or to discuss how your marital assets might be divided, contact our office today at 1-844-VARI-LAW or 1-844-827-4529 or by using the form provided below.