Recent Changes in Pet Custody

February 6, 2017

It is estimated that 70-80 million dogs and 74-96 million cats are owned in the United States.[1]  That equates to approximately 37-47% of all households in the United States own a dog, while approximately 30-37% of all households in the United States own a cat.  With these statistics, it is hard to believe that only one state has enacted laws to protect Fido and Miss Kitty from the fallout of his/her owners’ divorce. 

Most states, including Pennsylvania, define pets as personal property, much like a car or a chair. As such, there is no provision in the Pennsylvania Divorce Code which permits a judge to award visitation or custody rights to a pet owner.  Instead, like personal property, the judge must equitably distribute the dog or cat between the parties, using purely financial factors.  Since most parties have an emotional tie to the family pet, the thought of “buying” out their interest in the family pet, is both inconceivable and unwelcomed.

This month, in groundbreaking legislation, Alaska became the very first state to amend their divorce laws to include a provision surrounding “pet custody.” The amendment requires judges in divorce proceedings to “take into consideration the well-being of the animal” when determining which owner’s home it will be placed.  As such, the new law permits judges to consider factors such as who was the primary caregiver for the pet throughout the marriage, who will be awarded custody of the children (as it has long been a tradition that children and pets live together), and who has the financial means and time to devote to the pet, before awarding “joint custody” or “primary/partial custody” of the pet.  The Animal Legal Defense Fund, in a recent blog, called the well-being provision both “groundbreaking and unique.”

Alaska also permits pets to be covered in domestic violence protection orders, thus rendering them “victim-like” status in such proceedings.

[1] Source ASPCA.

Categorized In: Custody, Pets