Dog Owners: Beware of Divorce
Divorce takes an emotional toll on all families. For over 60% of the households in the United States, that also includes their pets. While all courts are required to address custody matters involving children, most states are not required to handle custody of the parties’ other children: their pets. For example, Pennsylvania treats pets as any other piece of personal property. One of the parties will be assigned ownership rights of the pet, and the other person may receive money, the sofa or the flat screen TV in exchange. This of course seems harsh and inconsiderate to anyone who has ever owned a pet. However, the courts in these states have no obligation, and will rarely, if ever, set any type of visitation schedule for a pet. The courts in Pennsylvania go as far as to not even enforce a private agreement between parties setting a visitation schedule for their pet.
Fortunately for pet owners, some states, including New Jersey, are now moving toward setting custody/visitation schedules for parties with pets. Based upon a 2009 Appellate Decision, the New Jersey courts recognize that pets have “special subjective value” to their owners. When both parties share in the responsibilities and companionship of the pet, clearly exchanging that pet for money or silverware, will not be a fair trade. In those cases, the courts consider similar factors used in setting custody orders for children. The courts look at who feeds and walks the animal, buys the food and toys, takes the animal to the veterinarian, and if applicable, who has primary custody of the children. The courts will often times try to keep the pet on the same visitation schedule as the parties’ children. Based upon those factors and the best interests of the pet, the courts will set an appropriate custody schedule which is enforceable by the court.
Scott Matison practices family law including, divorce, custody, support and abuse. He handles property settlement agreements, prenuptial agreements, alimony matters, equitable distribution and same-sex divorce and custody matters. He is located in the firm’s Conshohocken, PA office and can be reached at 267-675-4978 or at Scott.Matison@obermayer.com.