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Can divorce courts rule on the best interests of a pet?

Pennsylvania courts must decide many property and child custody issues during divorce. One particularly sensitive issue that affects emotions is custody or, more accurately, ownership of the family pet.

Child custody is decided on what is in the best interest of the child. However, Pennsylvania courts place pets in the same legal status as property, despite any deep and emotional attachment to the animals. Courts do not hold legal custody proceedings or consider evidence on their custody.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Superior Court dismissed a couple's legal action asking for enforcement of a settlement agreement for the shared custody of their dog. The court ruled that it could not award custody of the pet. Significantly, the court also found that it could not even enforce the terms of a custody agreement made by the couple.

The court compared the request for custody enforcement to a legal arrangement for a visitation schedule for a table or lamp. It ruled that it could not award visitation or shared custody of such personal property, like a table or lamp. But, judges on occasion, have considered the possible injustice to the pets and issued orders on their ownership and custody, although they did not have explicit legal authority.

Other states have started to address this issue and recognize the pet's interests. For example, Alaska passed a law in late 2016 that allows courts to make determinations in a divorce order about the ownership of companion animals that consider their well-being. Courts in that state can consider evidence on which spouse took responsibility on the pet's care, the bond the pet has with each spouse and the custody arrangement that is in the pet's best interest.

Pet ownership is only one of many emotional divorce legal issues that can cause a dispute in this state. A lawyer can help a spouse negotiate these matters or represent their rights in court.

Source: The Legal Intelligencer, "Can courts consider the interests of animals?," Penny Conly Ellison, Jan. 16, 2017

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