Fighting Over Fido

Pianos, beer glasses, even a stuffed moose head. These are some examples of items which the parties have fought over in divorces I’ve handled. On the road to divorce, even in the most amicable of splits, there may be fights over possessions, kids, the house, and bank accounts. But what about the family pet?

Pets Are Viewed as Personal Property

Fights over the family pet are becoming more common in divorces. In Pennsylvania and most other states, the law considers pets to be “chattel,” or personal property, much like furniture, jewelry, and sports equipment. It may seem a bit odd that pets fall into the same category as inanimate objects. There seems to be a disconnect between how people value their pets and how the law views pets, as most families treat their pets as if they are members of the family (or, in some instances, better than they treat family members).

In 2017 Alaska allowed for joint custody of pets and the inclusion of pets as protected parties in protection from abuse orders, which was considered “ground-breaking” legislation at the time. Furthermore, in the last few years, 3 states have changed their divorce statutes to recognize pets as family members, seemingly recognizing the intense bonds that pet owners develop with their pets. Moreover, legislation is pending in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., for new laws that outline custody guidelines for pets, which would be similar to guidelines currently in place for child custody. It seems that laws are changing to catch up to the sentiments that people hold toward their pets.

The Changing Role of Pets in America

The U.S. Supreme Court established pets as personal property in 1897. However, pets, more specifically dogs, had much different roles in society more than a century ago. Dogs were often kept for more utilitarian reasons, such as for protecting livestock from predators, keeping rats and mice out of homes, and for finding lost animals. As the years went by, and the country shifted from a rural society to a more urban one, dogs became companions, not laborers.

How Are Custody Decisions Made?

In May of 2019 House Bill 1432 was introduced to the Pennsylvania General Assembly that included guidelines on how judges were to consider custody of a family’s pet in divorce proceedings. The Bill, should it become law, will dictate that the following issues should be considered with regards to pets:

  • Whether the animal was acquired prior to or during the marriage;
  • The basic daily needs of the animal;
  • Who generally facilitates veterinary care and social interaction for the animal;
  • Who generally ensures compliance with local and state regulations, such as licensing; and
  • Who provides the greater ability to financially support the animal.

Noel and Bonebrake Can Help

Scott Bonebrake practices family law in Media, PA, and has been a licensed attorney for nearly 25 years. Please feel free to contact Scott if you have any legal questions, including those regarding pet custody, child custody, divorce, protection from abuse or any other family law related matter. You can reach Scott at 610-892-7700, or at sbonebrake@noelandbonebrake.com.