Who Gets the Dog in My Pennsylvania Divorce?


If you feel like your pet is a member of your family, you’re not alone. In fact, psychologists have recognized the validity of this statement for a very long time.

They’ve noted, for example, losing a pet causes the exact same stages of grief as losing any human family member.
And every year, Americans collectively spend an average of $70 billion on pet care.

It’s natural to want to know who will be able to take a beloved companion home when the dust of the divorce settles.

The law treats pets as property.

Many of our clients are outraged to learn the law doesn’t treat pets any differently than any other piece of marital property. That the dog or the cat doesn’t look much different than the sofa or the car to any Pennsylvania judge.

Individual dispositions do help, of course. Judges are people too, and some of them have their own beloved dogs and cats waiting for them at home, animals they couldn’t imagine doing without.

But the judge has no authority to order support for the dog or cat, or to create a visitation arrangement for animals and their people. The only thing a judge can do is decide who gets to become the pet’s owner.

See also: How Are Divorce Settlements Calculated in Pennsylvania?

If you want anyone to consider the best interests of your pet, you and your ex will have to be the ones to do it.

Many couples do try to negotiate the issue of the pet before it gets brought to a judge’s attention. It is is certainly an agreement that can be worked into a divorce settlement.
Some agreements cover not only who gets the pet, but follow up with visitation schedules, and agreements about who will pay veterinary bills.

Just be careful how many concessions you make to get “pet custody” or “pet visitation.” As of right now, Pennsylvania courts won’t uphold them. In the July 2002 case Descanctis v. Pritchard, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania not only refused to enforce such an agreement, but actively voided it as well.

See also: How to Increase Your Odds of an Amicable Divorce, and Collaborative Divorce in PA, Here’s What You Need to Know.

Here’s the evidence you need to gather to make a strong claim for your pet.

If the issue of pet custody enters divorce court there are a few pieces of evidence you can bring to strengthen your case.

Receipts or adoption papers noting when the pet entered the home.

If the pet was yours before you got married the dog or the cat is “non-marital property,” and your claim to your dog or your cat will be uncontested.

Cards, letters, or other documents noting the reason why the pet came into the home.

While it’s not cut-and-dried, documents indicating your spouse gave you the pet as a gift can make a difference.

Documents which provide evidence about who saw to the pet’s care.

These include license, registration, vet records, and microchip records. In each case the person who signed the records will have the stronger claim. In the case of vet records, the courts will look at who’s name or names are on the veterinary records.

The law is changing across the country, but the changes haven’t come to Pennsylvania yet.

3 states have passed laws giving divorcing couples the right to petition the courts for custody of their dog or cat. These laws have came into being both as a response to the growing number of divorce cases which include dog or cat claims, but also as a response to the growing awareness of the emotional investment most people have in their pets.
But you don’t want to count on any law changes helping you with your divorce. It takes time for new bills to be introduced and passed into laws.

Furthermore, these laws are not without some opposition. Opponents say they will only serve to add to the court’s backlog by complicating divorce cases, giving couples one more thing to fight about, and extending the length of time it takes to navigate the divorce process.

Either way, it’s our job as your Philadelphia divorce lawyers to make sure we are taking all your wants and needs into account. If you’re concerned about the fate of your beloved pet make sure you bring the issue up to us during your free consultation

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