Who Gets the Dog (or Cat) in a Pennsylvania Divorce?
It is a sad fact the law has not kept pace with the level of attention, money and emotional investment our society has poured into our pets.
Pittsburgh family law attorneys will tell you in Pennsylvania divorces, pets are treated merely as property. No best interest analysis is conducted, nor any other process close that could render effectively looking after the welfare of a pet. Indeed, no provision in the law exists for any type of shared ownership — custody if you will — or visitation. Judges simply have no legal authority to enter orders on basis other than to award the property outright to one spouse or the other.
What can you do then when you have a pet issue?
Consult with a Pittsburgh family law attorney to figure out ahead of negotiations the status of the pet. The first area of inquiry is to determine when the pet was actually acquired. It matters greatly if the pet was acquired before or after the date of marriage. If the pet was acquired before the marriage ceremony, then the party who acquired the pet will automatically receive the pet since it would be considered a nonmarital asset. If, however, the pet was acquired after the marriage ceremony, then the inquiry would go to the same types of factors used as if the judge were awarding an oriental rug or a valued lamp.
The following are examples of questions considered in pet division:
- Why was the pet acquired? i.e. was it a gift for one party or the other (gifts between spouses are still marital property but this may be of some persuasive merit)
- Who typically took care of the pet?
- Who typically paid for the food, vet bills etc.?
- Which party has the actual present ability to house the pet?
- Are there multiple pets?
Ideally, the parties themselves should try to make a decision regarding who gets the dog or cat based on what is ultimately the best for the pet because the court simply does not have the authority to do so. Some couples do negotiate a type of visitation schedule with a beloved pet. If that is the case, they also sometimes have an additional arrangement whereby some of the vet bills are shared. Often it seems by the time couples divorce, pets are now aging and the vet bills of course naturally become more expensive. If you are going to be sharing the love and affection of the pet and staying invested in the pet’s welfare, then both parties should be paying a portion of its medical care. Sometimes parties agree the other has a right of first refusal so if one is traveling or needs a pet sitter, they will call the other person first before putting the pet in a kennel.
Hopefully someday Pennsylvania law regarding the division of pets in family law cases will change, although no bills are presently pending. It would be much better for parties if judges had the authority to render decisions with regard to pets including orders regarding shared costs of pet care, visitation and guidelines for division.
If you are in the process of a divorce or considering separation and have a beloved pet you want to protect, call the Pittsburgh family law attorneys at Pollock Begg Komar Glasser & Vertz LLC at (412) 471-9000 or fill out our online contact form and we can advise how best to proceed so you can make decisions for your pet and your family unit.
Candice L. Komar, founding partner of Pollock Begg, is a strong litigator, trained mediator and collaborative law attorney who often deals with divorces involving closely held businesses, complex issues and high net worth individuals. A fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and recognized by local and national awards programs for her business sense and family law leadership, particularly in collaborative law, Candice is also often tapped by media to discuss hard-hitting custody and divorce cases.