Berman & Asbel, LLP

Think Your Pet Is Family, Not Property? Divorce Law Says Otherwise.

We love our pets and consider them family members. They need us and we need them. When divorce is imminent, the idea of losing a pet can be unthinkable. That is why many people look for options to share custody of their pets.

Maybe you can each have the pets for two weeks out of the month, meeting only to exchange them. Or, if you have kids, maybe the pets travel from house to house with the kids. The courts would find that reasonable, right?

Not exactly. In Pennsylvania, courts view animals the same way they would a couch: whether you bought your dog matters more than whether you love it.

Pennsylvania's Pet Custody Law

Under Pennsylvania law, dogs are property. In a 2002 family law case, DeSanctis v. Pritchard, the Pennsylvania Superior Court took this to mean that, as personal property, dogs cannot be the subject of a custody arrangement. Pennsylvania courts will not enforce pet custody or visitation agreements, even if they are part of a divorce agreement. After all, the court notes, you cannot have a custody agreement for property.

So How Can You Make Pet Custody Work?

It is best to determine pet custody and visitation on your own and with the help of a lawyer. Expect that you and your spouse will have to work together -- outside of court -- should one of you want to change the agreement in the future.

When Pet Custody Won't Work

If there is a power imbalance between you and your spouse, or you simply cannot agree, then pet custody might not be an option. Talk with a lawyer about how you can become your pet's permanent caretaker. Remember that, with pets equated to property, it's about the money. Some things you may need to show include:

· You bought or adopted your pet

· You bought pet food and paid for vet expenses

· You were otherwise financially responsible for your pet

Should your case go before a judge, your pets will be lumped with your other property and divided according to Pennsylvania law. While some states (such as Alaska) are beginning to see pets differently from property, Pennsylvania lags behind. Pet owners, how do you think the law should change?

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