It’s no secret that during a divorce, figuring out a child custody schedule or settling on which party gets certain personal property can be very difficult. But what can be just as difficult is figuring out who gets custody of the family dog. Some might be shocked to hear that in Pennsylvania, the family dog is considered personal property. What does this mean? It means that (close your eyes and ears, pet lovers) in the eyes of Pennsylvania Law, a court will treat your dog as it would a couch, table, or lamp.
How will the court award custody of pets?
If you and your ex-spouse cannot come to an agreement about who will have custody of the dog, either party can petition the court for an equitable distribution of marital property. Because dogs in Pennsylvania divorces are seen as personal property, the court can and will award the dog to only one party, based on the equitable distribution factors along with any other personal property that cannot be agreed upon.
Can my ex-spouse and I create a shared custody agreement for the dog?
You and your ex-spouse certainly can come to an agreement regarding the custody of the dog, but Pennsylvania courts will not enforce the agreement. In Desanctis v. Pritchard, the Pennsylvania Superior Court refused to enforce a dog visitation schedule between ex-spouses. The agreement gave the wife full custody of the dog, but provided times in which the husband could visit the dog. A few months after the divorce, the wife moved and severely limited the husband’s ability to ever see the dog again. The husband sued the wife, arguing that the court needed to enforce the dog visitation schedule in their agreement. Perhaps surprisingly, the court refused to enforce the visitation schedule for a two reasons:
Terms in a supplemental agreement that give shared custody or a visitation schedule for personal property are not valid; and
The Pennsylvania Legislature did not intend for the family law statutes to cover visitation schedules for personal property, whether it be a dog, table, or lamp.
Thus, even if you and your ex-spouse memorialize in writing a shared custody agreement for the dog, either party can “breach” the agreement without penalty.
So what are my options?
Unfortunately, the current state of Pennsylvania law would rather see the dog stay with one party than be enjoyed by both. Coming to an oral agreement with your ex-spouse regarding custody, and amicably resolving any issues that may arise, is typically the best option for both parties. If you and your ex-spouse are sharing custody of minor children, you may want to create a visitation schedule for the dog that revolves around the schedule for the children. This would likely benefit the children and the non-custodial spouse, as it would maximize time spent with the dog for all parties.
If you are in Central Pennsylvania and are worried about where your dog will go after the divorce, contact us to discuss your concerns.