If you’re in the midst of a divorce in PA, you’ve probably heard plenty of horror stories from friends who’ve been through the process. Disputes over the house, over pre-marital assets, over spousal support, and certainly over who spends more time with the kids are all typical, with some battles nastier than others. In the last few years divorce attorneys are responding to more and more clients who’ve added ownership of the dog to the list of things worth fighting over. If you’re anticipating pet custody as an issue in your divorce, there are a few points worth your consideration.
First things first. No matter how emotionally attached you and your soon-to-be-ex are to the dog and no matter how much you think of it as a family member, the courts do not agree. A decision by the Pennsylvania Superior Court — yes, somebody appealed a decision about pet custody to the Superior Court — made clear that pets are distinct from people and not subject to custody agreements. That means they are part of the equitable distribution process in the same way that any other asset is, and that it is not the court’s responsibility to establish or approve of a custody schedule. If the dog was owned before the marriage, or if there are adoption or purchase papers that only have one of your names on it then that will help identify the legal owner, but in terms of splitting the dog’s time between the two of you, you need to work this out for yourselves. Judges are not going to get involved.
So, what’s the right way to address the situation? As disappointing as this answer may be, the general consensus in the legal community is that if you and your spouse can’t come up with a solution you can both live with, it’s probably best for whoever doesn’t currently have possession of the animal to surrender and go find another dog. Even if you manage to craft an agreement, it’s not legally enforceable: if one of you violates its term you’re going to be back in the same, no-win, no-judge-will-hear-it situation.
No matter how wonderful your dog assuredly is, a legal battle over custody is going to result in nothing more than significant legal bills and bitter feelings. My advice? There are plenty of adoptable animals at your local shelter who would be happy to fill the void. Better to spend your money on toys and treats for a new pet then on a legal battle that you’re not likely to win.