Those who own pets know the deep bond that you can form with an animal—and unfortunately, too many know the pain of being separated from a beloved pet during divorce. In most states, pets are simply treated as property during a divorce. The court may look into who purchased the pet, whose name is on the microchip, and who has previously paid for veterinary care. However, most states do not look at the well-being of the pet; pets are simply treated as another asset to be split up.
This is changing in several parts of the country as more and more states introduce laws outlining how the court should consider pets during divorce cases.
Pennsylvania Gets Ready to Protect Pets
Pennsylvania legislators recently proposed a law that would change how courts view animals. When choosing who should receive guardianship of a pet, the court would look at a wide range of factors, including:
- Who provides the majority of the pet’s daily care
- The source of the pet’s social interaction
- Financial ability of each party to support the pet’s needs
- Who covers the expenses of veterinary care
- Whether or not the animal was acquired during or prior to the marriage
H.B. 1432 has received substantial support from legislators, who recognize that treating animals as property often leaves their needs unmet. In the past, divorcing spouses could agree on a custodial agreement in court. If one spouse later chose to stop following the agreement, though, the court would not enforce the terms of the agreement, rendering it useless.
If this law passes, it could benefit divorcing parties who prioritize custody of their pet over the financial assets of the marriage. This occurs in a surprising number of divorce cases. Rather than having their love for their pet exploited for the other party’s financial gain, pet owners can feel confident that the court will consider the pet’s needs while determining who receives guardianship.
However, Eric Gibson, a divorce attorney with a family law firm in Pennsylvania offers a counterpoint. “Divorces are already complicated enough given the emotions involved,” said Gibson. “Counseling clients through the process often requires helping them separate the emotion from the case. Given the no-fault aspect of divorce and the factors for equitable distribution, divorces have largely been reduced to something akin to a business transaction that focuses on the economics of the parties. This is a good thing.”
“While animals can cause a point of contention, in my experience, in the end the party who truly wants the animal and is capable of caring for it is ultimately awarded the animal. Rarely have I had a case where the parties cannot reach agreement on the pets. Adding this as another component, in my view will only serve to create more problems, more ability for the parties to fight over difficult and subjective determinations like the ‘source of the pet’s social interaction.’ When litigation is made more complicated, it typically means more expense. More chance for the case to end up in court versus being settled.”
California, Illinois, and Alaska: Pioneers in Pet Custody Law
The proposed law in Pennsylvania is fairly similar to those passed in several other states, including California and Illinois. In early 2019, a new California law designed to find the middle ground between pets as property and pets as children went into effect. The law established special assessments to determine who receives pet guardianship when both partners claim ownership. The law looks at questions similar to those in Pennsylvania H.B. 1432, including “Who walks the dog?” and “Who takes the pet to vet appointments?” If appropriate, the court may even decide to award joint guardianship to the divorcing spouses.
The Illinois law is slightly older, dating back to 2017. The law puts guidelines in place for the treatment of animals that are marital assets. Rather than simply giving the pet to one spouse or the other, the judge can look at a number of guidelines to figure out what best serves the needs of the pets. This legislation mirrors a law passed in Alaska.
What Other States Say
While most states still look at pets as property, the tide could be turning. A growing number of divorce cases involve disputes over pet ownership, and legislators in many states have started to realize that it is inhumane to treat pets the same way you would jewelry or a retirement fund during divorce. Some experts expect a rush of pet guardianship laws to reach legislative floors in a number of states in coming years. In the meantime, divorcing pet owners should feel empowered to advocate on their pet’s behalf and fight for them to get the best care possible.