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Can Our Family Pet be Included in the Custody Agreement?


There are many married couples in Pennsylvania contemplating divorce and wondering what will happen to their pet. As more couples marry and add pets to their family, the issue of who will take the pet if the marriage fails becomes a hot-button topic. As divorcing couples work to negotiate their separation agreements, courts are working hard to determine how to treat the issue of pet custody. The essential question surrounding pet custody is whether pets are possessions or family. Close to 70% of all US households have a pet, and many of those families consider their pets members of the household – some even being treated like children. Phrases like dog mom and dog dad have entered the lexicon to clarify the importance of pets to many people. The importance of pets in the modern family is a significant change from the early 19th century.

When the country was more agrarian, animals were largely seen as property, like tools on a farm used to provide food and protection. From then to now, the position of animals in our society has changed. Many states have adopted protections for animals, which provides even more clarification for couples trying to determine whether a pet is property or family. So, what does Pennsylvania law have to say about pet custody issues during a divorce?

How Issues Regarding Pets are Treated in PA Divorce Proceedings

Pennsylvania law has clarified the issue of pet custody claims. In 2002, the Superior Court decided settlement agreements that included issues of pet custody were unenforceable. The Barney Rule, which was named after the dog at the center of the case, states that pets are considered personal property and concluded issues related to the pet should be included in the settlement agreement with other items of value. The significance of this ruling lies in the realization that if you and your divorcing spouse try to share custody of your pet, the court will not enforce this agreement. Your pet custody agreement does not rise to the same level since your pet is property. The best course of action for divorcing couples with a pet is to approach the situation differently. Shared custody should not be on the table unless you and your future ex have a constructive relationship that you trust will continue to be positive. Because any shared custodial agreement for your pet is unenforceable, entering such a relationship would require trust.

Since the Barney Rule defines pets as property, Pennsylvania family courts are not required to enforce pet sharing agreements post-divorce. If you’re already divorced, and you and your ex are still fighting over the family pet, you may need to take your dispute over the pet to the civil court system to resolve the matter. Pets acquired during the marriage will be awarded during the property division phase of a divorce, but pets brought into the marriage will likely be retained by the initial purchaser as a pre-marital asset.

Compassionate and Thoughtful Divorce Representation

Pets have a place within the conversation of family and divorce. Many people adopt animals into their families, and a failure to provide clarity on these issues can make divorce even more difficult for couples. Determining who leaves with the family pet can be challenging, but having a compassionate and thoughtful divorce team on your side can make all the difference. Our divorce lawyers will listen to your concerns and develop a strategy for your situation. The lawyers at William Kirby Law understand the importance of pet custody issues, and we can work with you to reach a resolution in your case. To schedule a consultation regarding your divorce matter or to discuss how your marital assets might be divided, contact our office at (215) 515-9901 for more information about how we can help!