Pennsylvania law covers many issues that couples face after they end their marriage such as spousal and child support, child custody and how most property should be allocated. But the law remains ambiguous on the custody and support of a valued and loved family member. Pennsylvania’s family law is still outdated on the care and custody of the couple’s pet after divorce.

The law in Pennsylvania and 46 other states treats the family’s dog or cat as another piece of personal property that is allocated like inanimate and physical assets. The pet’s best interest does not necessarily govern which spouse gains custody of the animal. Pennsylvania judges do not have the legal power to order pet-support payments and visitation.

Pets can be used as unfair leverage in divorce disputes. Pet custody may depend, for example, on giving up spousal support.

But couples can avoid emotional harm and turmoil through negotiations. They can agree to primary custody, visitation schedules, financial support for care and taking care of the pet when a spouse is unavailable.

To address this problem, however, legislation was introduced which would set standards for awarding pet custody. These would include whether the pet was acquired before or during marriage, the pet’s daily needs, the spouse with the best ability to financially support the animal and which spouse generally handles veterinary care, social interaction and licensing requirements. Couples could enter an enforceable agreement, in addition to their divorce decree, that governs the custody and care of the animal.

This proposal, however, would not cover unmarried couples and how the legal definition of marital property governs pets. As drafted, the bill is also unclear on whether the court could order financial support.

A lawyer can help spouses negotiate pet custody and other important issues. They can also protect rights and seek a fair and reasonable decree.