Many divorcing couples in Pennsylvania are surprised to learn that there’s no guidance in the law to help them determine how to share “custody” of their pets. While dogs and cats are beloved family members to many people, our law, like that in most states, considers them “property” to be divided in an equitable manner. If a couple can’t work that out for themselves, a judge will.
That could change. There’s currently a bill working its way through the Pennsylvania legislature that would allow judges to consider factors such as who has been an animal’s primary caretaker when determining who should get the pet in a divorce.
The representative who introduced the bill notes that sometimes, “a pet can be used by one party as leverage against the other when negotiating the division of assets.” She adds that under the current law, “they are treated the same as a couch or other inanimate objects in divorce proceedings.”
How would the legislation change things?
The proposed legislation would direct judges to consider the following factors if required to decide the fate of a couple’s pet:
- Whether the pet was acquired prior to or during the marriage
- Which spouse has been primarily responsible for the animal’s social interaction, veterinary care and licensing
- Which spouse is better able to care for the animal financially
The legislation would also allow couples to establish an “enforceable agreement regarding the possession or care, or both, of a companion animal.” This agreement can establish things like the “periods of time during which each party will possess the companion animal” and the “financial responsibility of each party regarding the care of the companion animal.”
In the meantime, even without this law, divorcing couples can work out a joint care plan for their animal similar to what is proposed in the bill that will address the unique needs of their pet(s) and their family.