West Chester, PA 19380
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Lee Ciccarelli is the founder and managing partner of Ciccarelli Law Offices with over two decades experience as a practicing attorney.
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During the equitable division of marital property in a divorce, the custody of shared pets can become a major issue for some spouses. While state law in Pennsylvania allows for custody arrangements that serve the best interests of children, animals are viewed no differently than other forms of personal property in the Keystone State.
While courts might not place the significant value on pets that spouses do, deciding who ultimately gets ownership of animals can easily become an enormous source of conflict during divorce proceedings. Spouses who are intent on keeping custody of their beloved pets can present certain types of evidence that bolster their cases as to why they should be the ones who are awarded custody of shared animals.
If you are concerned about whether you will be able to get custody of a shared pet in your divorce, it will be in your best interest to retain legal counsel. Ciccarelli Law Offices can help you craft an agreement that ensures you continue to have a relationship with your pet or present the strongest possible argument if the court has to decide which spouse is awarded custody.
Our divorce attorneys in West Chester work as a team to help clients all over southeastern Pennsylvania with the division of assets in divorce proceedings, including communities in Delaware County, Lancaster County, Chester County, Montgomery County, and the greater Philadelphia area. You can have us provide a full evaluation of your case during a free consultation when you call (877) 529-2422 to take advantage of a free initial consultation.
Under 3 P.S. § 459-601(a), dogs are considered personal property in Pennsylvania. Marital property is distributed in accordance with the guidelines established under 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3502.
Spouses may indeed formulate their own shared custody agreements for pets, but courts in Pennsylvania are powerless to enforce any alleged violations of such agreements. Two other statutes address property rights during divorces:
23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3503, Effect of divorce on property rights generally
Whenever a decree or judgment is granted which nullifies or absolutely terminates the bonds of matrimony, all property rights which are dependent upon the marital relation, except those which are vested rights, are terminated unless the court expressly provides otherwise in its decree. All duties, rights and claims accruing to either of the parties at any time theretofore in pursuance of the marriage shall cease, and the parties shall severally be at liberty to marry again as if they had never been married.
23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3504, Disposition of property after termination of marriage —
Unless provided otherwise by the court, whenever a decree of divorce or annulment is entered by a court of competent jurisdiction, both parties whose marriage is terminated or affected shall have complete freedom of disposition as to their separate real and personal property and may mortgage, sell, grant, convey or otherwise encumber or dispose of their separate property, whether the property was acquired before, during or after coverture, and neither need join in, consent to or acknowledge a deed, mortgage or instrument of the other.
If a court is forced to rule on which spouse gets custody of a pet, it may take several factors in account in rendering its decision. A few of the issues that can play a role in determining which spouse gets custody of a family animal include, but are not limited to:
What to do if you are involved in a custody battle over your companion animal — The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) is a nonprofit law organization with a mission to “protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.” On this section of the ALDF website, you can find information to be considered if you are involved in a custody battle over your pet. You can also find links to read ALDF’s article, “Lawyers Must Plan for More Pet Custody Cases,” and watch their video, “Pet Custody Disputes: A Legal Primer.”
DeSanctis v. Pritchard, 803 A. 2d 230 (2002) — On July 5, 2002, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a trial court’s decision to dismiss the appellant’s complaint and the appellee’s counterclaim. The appellant and appellee married in 1991 and divorced in October 2000, purchasing a dog, Barney, during their marriage. While the two parties entered into an "Agreement" that made Barney the appellee's property and gave her full custody, the appellee’s move to Bucks Count in March 2000led to Barney no longer being made available for the appellant's visits and the appellant filed a complaint requesting a trial court to grant injunctive relief to mandate "shared custody" of Barney, declare the appellee in breach of the agreement, and reform the agreement to provide for "shared custody." The Superior Court’s ruling that pets are no different than any other personal property under state law has become known as the “Barney rule,” with the court writing:
In seeking "shared custody" and a "visitation" arrangement, Appellant appears to treat Barney, a dog, as a child. Despite the status owners bestow on their pets, Pennsylvania law considers dogs to be personal property. See 3 P.S. § 459-601(a);see also Price v. Brown, 545 Pa. 216, 680 A.2d 1149, 1153 n. 3 (1996). The Agreement in question explicitly awarded this property to Appellee. Appellant argues that 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 3105(a), which allows the court to enforce a supplementary agreement to a divorce decree whether or not it was merged or incorporated into the decree, controls this issue. Appellant, however, overlooks the fact that any terms set forth in the Agreement are void to the extent that they attempt to award custodial visitation with or shared custody of personal property. See Pa.C.S.A. § 3502 (setting forth guidelines for distribution of property as opposed to custody or visitation). As the trial court aptly noted, Appellant is seeking an arrangement analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.
Do you think that your pet might be a major source of contention in your divorce? Ciccarelli Law Offices understands the important roles that pets play in people’s lives and helps clients all over southeastern Pennsylvania maintain their relationships with their beloved animals.
Our West Chester divorce attorneys also have office locations in Plymouth Square, Springfield, Malvern, Philadelphia, King of Prussia, Lancaster, Kennett Square, and Radnor. Call (877) 529-2422 or complete an online contact form today to have our lawyers review your case during a free consultation.