Divorce Cases and Pet Custody
A common issue in many divorce cases is who will get to keep the parties’ pets. Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, pets are treated no differently than any other item of personal property. In 2002, the PA Supreme Court decided in Desanctis v. Pritchard, 803 A.2d 230 (2002), that a divorced couple’s written agreement regarding custody of their dog, Barney, was void and unenforceable. The Court explained that pets should simply be included in the equitable distribution of the remainder of a divorcing couple’s marital property. This is now known as the “Barney Rule.”
In New Jersey, however, the Superior Court decided differently. Houseman v. Dare, 405 N.J. Super. 538 (App.Div. 2009), states that when there is disagreement over custody of a pet, a hearing should be held to determine which party had the greater attachment to the pet. The Court also acknowledged that pets have a special “subjective value” to their owners, comparable to a family heirloom.
In California, a new law goes into effect on January 1, 2019, that will allow courts to determine custody of pets as part of divorce litigation. Hopefully, this trend will continue east, and Pennsylvania courts will begin to recognize that pets are more than just personal property to their owners.