When your marriage falls apart, there are lots of things to think about, lots of ways you have to figure out how to divide things. How will your children divide their time with parents and where will they spend their time? How about marital debts and assets? What about the family pets??? —Wait a minute—that’s not one you’d thought about, is it?
Though people seldom factor the pets into a decision whether or not to get divorced, experts acknowledge that, for many people, pets are part of the family. The unfortunate reality, according to the law in just about every state, is that pets are treated like property in a divorce, not like children. If it’s an amicable divorce and you and your ex can effectively work together, you can have “shared custody” of your animals. If that’s not possible, what will most likely happen is that the court order will give the “property” to one of the parties. In fact, a Pennsylvania Superior Court decision in 2003, which is still law in the state, addressed this very issue.
In DeSanctis v. Pritchard, the trial court rejected a couple’s complaint for enforcement of a divorce settlement agreement that included shared custody of a dog. The couple appealed and the appellate court likened the custody agreement for the dog to “a visitation schedule for a table or lamp.” The court ruled that the canine was personal property and that the parties could not have shared custody of personal property.
A recently enacted statute in Alaska gives animal enthusiasts cause for optimism. The Alaskan legislature passed provisions giving family law courts the authority to make decisions in divorce proceedings about companion animals. Essentially, the Alaskan law allows a court to consider the well-being of the animal when determining who will get the pet—the court can consider such factors as who had the closest bond with the animal and who cared for the pet.