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Who Keeps the Family Pet After Divorce?

By Donna Marcus

During a divorce, assets such as bank accounts and real estate will need to be divided and distributed, and if children are involved, custody will need to be addressed. But who retains custody of the family pet after divorce? In most households, pets are like members of the family. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania courts do not yet treat them as such and do not consider the “best interests” of the pet.

Under Pennsylvania law, pets are considered personal property. As such, when dividing assets in a divorce, they are treated no differently than the rest of the parties’ personal property, such as a couch or a piano. Ownership is the sole determinative factor as to who retains the pet post-divorce. To determine ownership, the court will first consider whether the pet was owned by one of the spouses prior to the marriage. If the pet was adopted by one of the parties prior to marriage, the pet is not considered part of the marital estate and will be considered that party’s pre-marital property to retain.

If, however, the parties jointly adopted a pet during the marriage, the court will need to consider additional factors to determine who should retain the pet post-divorce. These factors include: whose name is on the adoption documents, whose name is on the pet license, and whose name is on the veterinary records evidencing who was responsible for the pet’s care.

Certainly, and similar to child custody agreements, parties may decide to enter into a contract to share “custody” of the pet. These agreements are not without issue, though. First, these agreements are not likely an option for divorcing parties who do not communicate well or do not have a somewhat amicable relationship. In addition, even if the parties currently get along, issues could arise in the future, such as one party moving, which would make following the agreement impractical or impossible. Additionally, when such issues arise, family courts generally will not enforce an agreement that they deem is essentially a custody agreement for pets. Therefore, the aggrieved party will likely be forced to file a breach of contract action in civil court instead of seeking relief in family court in the context of the divorce action.

Parties can also take steps to address this issue proactively prior to divorce, rather than waiting until emotions are high during the divorce process. A provision specifically addressing how to divide or distribute pets upon separation or divorce can be included in either a prenuptial agreement prior to marriage or an agreement executed during the marriage, sometimes referred to as a mid-nuptial agreement or post-nuptial agreement.

The law in Pennsylvania may be changing, however, and courts may soon recognize that pets have a special status that is not equivalent to an object such as a couch or piano. There is currently proposed legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives which would provide a special provision for pets during divorce. Specifically, the proposed law seeks to establish factors for the court to consider when determining who should retain a family pet after divorce, which include: whether the pet was acquired prior to or during the marriage; who cares for the basic daily needs of the pet; who generally facilitates veterinary care and social interaction for the pet; who generally ensures compliance with local and state regulations, such as licensing; and who provides the greater ability to financially support the pet.

Until the law in Pennsylvania changes, however, it is imperative to know your rights regarding pets prior to filing for divorce, or prior to marriage, to place yourself in the best position possible to retain your furry family member. A skilled family law attorney will be able to advise you further on whether you have a good case for retention of your family pet after divorce or if you run the risk of not prevailing, as well as help to situate your position in the best way for presentation in Court in the context of the divorce case.

About Divorce and Family Law Firm Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman LLC

Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman LLC is a v firm based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, that provides dedicated and experienced legal services to the Main Line Philadelphia-area community. The firm’s divorce and family lawyers work diligently in pursuit of success for their clients. They are advocates of collaborative divorce, and their family-centric approach attempts to enable clients’ families to remain intact for the overall good of the family.

For more information about what happens to a family pet after divorce, or about Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman, please visit or call 610-265-4441.

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Our experienced family lawyers take the time to fully understand the financial and emotional complexities that can be involved in separating two lives. We offer the patience and resources to effectively guide clients through a divorce, addressing all the challenges they may face in moving forward with their lives. To learn more about how we can help protect your rights and interests in a complex divorce, contact the Pennsylvania divorce attorneys at Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman LLC.