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Who Gets Custody of a Pet After a Divorce in Pennsylvania?

Published: Jul 24, 2023 in Divorce

Written by Anthony Piccirilli

Divorce is hard for everyone, but the process can be even more challenging when a family pet is involved. A disagreement about the dog, cat, or family goldfish can be difficult to reconcile. An experienced Pittsburgh custody and divorce attorney can help you decide on future ownership of a pet, including setting up a pet custody arrangement for you and your ex-spouse.

Pet Custody vs. Child Custody in Pennsylvania

Most of us view our pets as family. However, pets are not treated the same way as human children under Pennsylvania custody laws. Instead, pets are considered “personal property.”

This means that the court will not look at what is best for the pet as an emotional and living creature, like they would for a child. Instead, a judge will look at your pet as part of your marital estate. Essentially, pets are property that needs to be distributed between you and your spouse equitably.

While it might seem harsh, the law remains clear on the matter. Still, some judges sympathize with individuals seeking custody or special arrangements for their pets.

What the Courts Consider in Pet Custody Cases

Whether your pet goes to you or your ex after divorce will depend on several aspects. If you or your spouse owned the pet prior to your relationship or marriage, the pet may not be part of the marital estate. Instead, it will likely go to whoever owned the pet previously.

However, if you bought or adopted the pet together during the marriage, it is part of the marital estate. The courts will look at your and your ex-spouse’s finances when determining who keeps the pet, including:

  • Who paid for the purchase or adoption of the pet
  • Who was financially responsible for the pet’s food and other daily needs
  • Who covered the majority of veterinary care costs

However, some judges may be swayed by other factors, such as:

  • Who has been the primary caregiver for the animal
  • Who has the most interest in keeping the pet
  • Which parent has custody of the children the most (if the kids are attached to the pet)

Whether or not a judge will consider factors outside of finances depends on the case. A compassionate attorney can help you argue for your pet to go to the best home, not just to the person who paid the bills.

Is Shared Custody of a Pet Possible?

There is no such thing as a formal custody arrangement when it comes to personal property. You can’t split a car or a painting after a divorce; the same goes for a family pet.

However, if you and your ex-partner are handling the divorce amicably, you may be able to set up a system where both of you share custody of a pet. Just know that a Pennsylvania court will not uphold this agreement if any issues arise, since your pet is still considered property by law. Instead, your pet custody agreement will be an informal arrangement between you and your former spouse.

Many parents agree to let the pet follow the children—when the kids are at one parent’s house, so is the dog or cat. However, one detail to be preemptively agreed upon is who will be responsible for daily expenses and more significant veterinary bills. This is another area where an attorney can help.

On the other hand, if you and your ex-spouse have a hard time working together, it is better to decide that the pet goes to one person’s home. It is also better to resolve this issue sooner rather than later, either together or through the court. Don’t wait. Get ahead of the situation with a knowledgeable lawyer on your side.

A Pittsburgh Divorce Lawyer Can Help You Keep Your Pet

If you’re worried about losing your pet in a divorce or are unsatisfied with Pennsylvania’s stance on pets, you are not alone. Many people disagree with treating pets like property, despite this being the law in a majority of states. While recently-proposed bills like House Bill 1108 aim to simplify pet custody in Pennsylvania, we have many ways to go before the law treats pets like family.

You deserve to protect your dog or cat after a divorce. An experienced and empathetic Pittsburgh divorce attorney from Pittsburgh Divorce & Family Law, LLC can help you manage the situation between you and your former spouse. If you cannot agree, attorney Anthony Piccirilli will tenaciously argue for you to keep your pet.

To schedule a consultation about your Pennsylvania divorce, contact us at (412) 471-5100 today.