Lions and Tigers and…Gerbils? — Pet Custody in Pennsylvania
The divorce process is a difficult one no matter the circumstances. Most issues related to this process carry an emotional component. While we would expect emotions to run high when the parties are deciding issues such as custody and the disposition of the family home, emotional attachments to certain property also can give rise to disputes. Artwork, photographs or irreplaceable keepsakes can be quite meaningful to either party, and the process becomes more than just dividing up things. Although it is clear to most the difference between determining the fate of a chair shared by the parties and that of their child, it might not be so clear when pets are involved.
It should not surprise us that a common question received by family law practitioners is how the divorce process impacts pet ownership. The bond between an owner and an animal can be very strong, and the reciprocal emotional attachment often experienced cannot be replicated. Determining who gets to keep Fifi can be a big battle when dogs or cats are viewed more like children and when both parties have developed an emotional attachment. The issue is that, unless you reside in a select few states, Fifi will be viewed no differently than a TV or a sofa.
While the parties might come to an agreement regarding custody or visitation of pets, and while they might memorialize their intentions in writing, it just might not matter. Outside of Indiana, Alaska, and California, pet custody is not a legal concept. In Pennsylvania, the Superior Court upheld the view that the disposition of pets during the divorce process is akin to the disposition of property (Desanctis v. Pritchard). Specifically, the Court declined to give any credence to an agreement granting an ex-husband visitation rights to the family dog when the dog had been granted to the ex-wife through their property settlement agreement. The Court viewed this no differently than granting a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp, which it never would entertain. There might be some hope on the horizon for pet-lovers after all.
PA House Bill 1432 introduced in 2019 currently sits before the House Judiciary Committee, and rumor has it that the bill has enjoyed bipartisan support. The bill seeks to establish a set of factors for the court to follow in determining the best result for companion animals. If passed, the proposed legislation would add another avenue for the court to aid in resolving the sensitive issues faced during divorce. Until then, the fate of Fido will be determined like every other car or couch shared by the parties.
If you are going through a divorce and in need of some help, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. You can also read our Family Law Tips on when to file for child support, if you need a divorce lawyer, establishing healthy lines of communication, and more.