What Happens to Family Pets During a Divorce?

When it comes to divorce, the challenges of child custody are a given. With few exceptions, both parents want to maximize their time with their children and will fight more aggressively over this issue than almost any other issue. Though you may think that the exception to this rule is the arguments over money, the truth is that there are even more emotional battles over who gets to keep the couple’s pets – and this has led to the establishment of what is known as the “Barney rule,” which codifies pets as personal property.

Though you may think of your dog, cat, bird or any other pet as a member of the family, the courts do not see things the same way. Though family court judges may be animal lovers themselves, they tend to rely on precedent to help them resolve disputes over who gets custody over Fido, Patches, or Tweetie, and that precedent came from a case that was heard by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2002. The litigation involved custody of a divorcing couple’s dog, named Barney. In the case, the wife was given full custody of the animal and the husband was given visitation in much the same way that child custody battles are often resolved. But when the wife decided to relocate to an area that was geographically challenging for her ex-husband, he filed for shared custody of the dog so that he could continue to see him on a regular basis.

In its ruling on how Barney’s custody and whether the original agreement that allowed visitation should be honored, the court dealt a significant blow to animal lovers everywhere, writing that, “Despite the status owners bestow on their pets, Pennsylvania law considers dogs to be personal property.” The court went on to explain that as property, the question of custody is inappropriate. They wrote, “Husband is seeking an arrangement analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.” As any pet owner can imagine, this decision was roundly criticized, yet remains the legal standard. Most other states have dealt with the question of pets in a similar way.

Though the Barney rule is relied upon in courts, divorcing couples who are willing to negotiate are often able to come to more agreeable terms. For guidance on this and other issues involving your divorce, contact our compassionate attorneys today to set up a time to discuss the specifics of your situation.