Pet Custody: Who Gets the Dog in a Divorce?

Young bearded man bonding with his english bulldog concept.

Dogs and other pets are viewed as property under the law in Pennsylvania when it comes to divorces. However, this doesn’t mean that their owners view their pets in the same way as they would their car, house, or a piece of furniture when they part ways. Due to the strong emotional bond many people share with their pets, the issue of who will have custody after divorce is often highly contentious. While a court will not determine pet custody in the same way as it would decide child custody, there are still ways pet ownership can be established.

How is Pet Custody Determined in a Pennsylvania Divorce?

Pennsylvania follows the rule of equitable distribution when dividing property in a divorce — including dogs and other pets. This means that any property owned by either spouse prior to the marriage is usually considered separate property and will be awarded to that spouse. Property acquired during the marriage is typically classified as marital property and will undergo the process of equitable distribution.

In determining pet custody after divorce, a Pennsylvania court may evaluate a number of factors, including the following:

  • Which spouse was the pet’s primary caregiver
  • Who provided training
  • Who brings the pet to the veterinarian
  • Which spouse has the financial means to care for the pet
  • Which spouse’s name is on the pet’s license and registration
  • Who can spend more time with the pet
  • Whether there was a history of animal abuse

A judge may also award the pet to the custodial parent if the children were attached to the pet and it is in their best interests to live with the animal.

Importantly, pet custody after divorce does not always need to be litigated before a judge. Spouses are free to reach an agreement on their own outside the courtroom regarding who will keep the dog. Whether an agreement settling property disputes is reached informally, or through negotiation, mediation, or the collaborative process, it must be in writing and signed by a judge to become a formal court order.

What Evidence is Needed to Establish Pet Custody?

Should the issue of pet ownership after divorce be litigated in court, there are several pieces of evidence that may be helpful to prove ownership. For instance, registration and microchip records, veterinary bills, and pedigree records can all be helpful to establish the pet’s owner. Additionally, receipts for food, supplies, toys, and grooming can demonstrate which spouse was the primary caregiver. Eyewitness testimony concerning which spouse took the pet for walks or trained the animal may also be useful.

Is a Pet Custody Agreement Enforceable in Court?

Since dogs and other pets are considered property, Pennsylvania judges are unlikely to enforce a pet custody agreement. This doesn’t mean that spouses cannot enter into an informal agreement to share custody after they have parted ways — even if it would hold no weight in court should a dispute later occur at some point regarding ownership.

Critically, if spouses are amicable, they may be able to set up a shared custody arrangement for their pet. Or, they might agree to allow the pet to follow the children as they move between homes pursuant to the child custody arrangement. Nevertheless, in such cases, it’s essential to be clear about who will bear responsibility for the pet’s food, veterinary care, and grooming expenses.

Another way pet custody can be established is with an antenuptial agreement, commonly referred to as a prenuptial agreement, or a “prenup.” This is a contract entered into before marriage and can determine property ownership — including who gets to keep the pet — in the event of divorce. Prenups are often helpful to reduce conflict and cost in divorce since it resolves issues before disputes can even arise.

In addition, a Pennsylvania court may also recognize a valid postnuptial agreement. A postnup is similar to a prenup in that it decides property division issues, but it is signed while the parties are married instead of before the marriage. While a provision in a prenup or postnup concerning visitation with the pet after a divorce won’t be enforced, the court will likely abide by any provisions outlining who should retain pet “ownership.”

Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Divorce Attorney

The thought of losing a beloved dog or other pet in a divorce can be overwhelming. If pet custody is a contentious issue in your divorce, it’s critical to have an aggressive advocate by your side who will fight for the best possible outcome. The attorneys at Berman & Associates are committed to providing compassionate counsel and reliable representation to clients for divorce and family law matters. Located in Media, Pennsylvania, we serve clients in Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, as well as in the City of Philadelphia. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Divorce