By Matthew T. Hovey, Esquire
A story in the national headlines this week raises the interesting question of whether you can file for custody of a pet in Pennsylvania. According to msnbc.com, Craig Dershowitz of New York, reportedly, spent over $60,000 in legal fees attempting to gain custody of the dog he shared with his ex-girlfriend, who now lives in California with the dog, Knuckles, a pug/beagle mix. The case is still pending and Mr. Dershowitz is now fundraising to continue his legal cross-country legal battle, which has allegedly drained his life savings.
Fortunately for Mr. Dershowitz, the case is limited to New York and California and not Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, you cannot file for custody of a pet. To the shock of most pet lovers, in Pennsylvania, an animal is treated under the law as property, the same as your kitchen table or 401k. If you are married, the pet would be dealt with by the court during the divorce as part of equitable distribution. If you are dating and break-up with your significant other, you would be limited to general civil actions, which may including an action for replevin. Your remedies may be limited to money damages, which would likely be based on the retail value of the dog and will not take into consideration sentimental value.
As a result, if you and your spouse/significant other own a pet, the best protection is a written agreement that clarifies ownership and includes a provision for the resolution of any dispute over possession of the pet. You will want to consider who owns the pet or, if you both own the pet, how is the ownership interest divided between the two of you (e.g., 50/50, 75/25). Likewise, you will want to consider how any disputes should be resolved (e.g., private mediation, money damages to one party, right of one party to buyout the others interest).
If you and your spouse/significant other own a pet and would like to discuss a written agreement concerning the pet, please contact our office for a free initial consultation. Our office also handles pet trusts, to provide care for your pet upon your passing, and matters of equine law. We can be reached at 610-845-3803.