Divorce often involves challenging decisions, and one that can stir emotions is determining who gets custody of the family pet. Dogs, cats and other animal companions are more than just non-human roommates; they are family in many cases.
The prospect of parting with one can be painful for one or both spouses. Despite this, Pennsylvania courts view pets as property and treat them accordingly.
One of the first things courts want to know is if the pet came into the marriage with one of the spouses or after it. In the former case, the pet remains with the owner as separate property. In the latter, he or she goes through the same distribution process as houses or bank accounts. Judges may take into account who purchased the pet or has ownership papers, especially if the pet is an expensive purebred. If the pet is marital property and is worth a substantial amount, judges may factor in his or her value when splitting the estate.
While not a requirement, some judges consider what is in the pet’s best interests. They may look at who was the primary caregiver or who primarily paid for food and vet expenses since they want to put him or her with the partner who cares. They may also favor the spouse with the time, space and money to give the pet a decent life.
Since judges do need to consider children’s best interests, if minor children have an emotional attachment, it may affect the pet’s placement. If removal of the animal can cause emotional or mental damage or its presence may ease adjustment, courts may place it with the primary custodial parent.
According to Zebra, over 60% of Pennsylvanians have a pet of some sort. Pets are an important part of life for many. While legally they are property, judges may treat them with this in mind, and the splitting spouses themselves can mediate and come to a custody agreement on their own.