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Pets: Divided Like Property, or Shared with Custody?

By Sheryl Rentz on February 28, 2018

sleeping orange tabby cat

Any pet owner will tell you that she views her pet as a member of the family. When couples divorce, one would expect pets to be treated the same as children, given how much they mean to their “pet parents.” In some states, like Illinois, the laws are moving in this direction. However, that is not the case in Pennsylvania.

No matter how you view your pet, in the eyes of our law, a pet is property. It is split the same way cars, furniture, or money are—by financial worth.

How Do PA Courts Handle Pet Custody?

Desanctis v. Pritchard set the precedent for how pet custody is handled in Pennsylvania. In this case, the couple outlined in the divorce agreement that the dog would go to wife and the husband would be able to visit. All was well until the wife moved and wouldn’t let her ex visit the dog anymore. He took her to court, seeking joint custody or set visitation for the dog. The court ultimately ruled in the wife’s favor. Since pets are property, the courts would not enforce custody or visitation rights. The awarded owner is not obligated or bound by law to provide any visitation. Two parties can arrange visitation amongst themselves, but keep in mind that there are no legal repercussions if the main owner doesn’t keep up his or her end of the bargain.

What Documents Do You Need to Win Your Pet in Court?

With any breakup, couples tend to let their emotions get the best of them and don’t always think realistically. You should never try to take a pet out of spite if you know it will be better off with your ex-spouse. Take a moment to reflect on if you really have the time and finances to provide your pet with the best environment possible.

Since animals are property in the eyes of the law, it would be helpful to keep proof that you are the one who bought or adopted the dog. If you are not the one who purchased the dog, that doesn’t automatically count you out: you can prove that you did the majority of the caretaking. For example: receipts for vet bills or food, or having witnesses to vouch that you did all of the dog walking, training, etc., can be a huge help. Below are the main items a judge will consider when awarding the pet to one spouse in a divorce:

  • License and registration: This document holds the most weight in court. The person who signs this document is seen as the official owner, and is liable if anything happens to the pet or if the pet harms anyone. The judge will mainly look at this document to make a decision.
  • Vet records: If both of your names are on the vet records, it shows that you both shared an interest in your pet’s well-being. In this case, the judge will look at who spent more on the vet bills to reach a decision.
  • Microchip records: Microchips are used to locate a pet if it gets lost. This document also requires a signature and can be used to prove ownership of your pet as well.
  • Pedigree registration: If you have a purebred animal, this additional piece of documentation will help.

What Else Can You Do?

If you have a pet that you can’t bear to part with, drafting a pre- or postnuptial agreement is a good idea. The courts honor these agreements for who the pet will go to in the event of a divorce. Although some couples don’t like to discuss prenups, they provide a safety net and can avoid a lot of time, stress, and court fees in the long run.

Another option is speaking to a local custody lawyer. He or she will work diligently to make sure you get what you want and present you with other options for winning your pet. The law is slowly changing how it views pets, and a lawyer will know all the latest details that help you. At the Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C., we have over 25 years of experience in family law (including Pennsylvania pet custody) and will guide you step-by-step through this process. Call (610) 645-0100 for a free consultation today.

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