Lawmaker says pets should be given special consideration in divorces
In a divorce, deciding who gets a pet should be treated differently than deciding who gets a piece of furniture, according to a state legislator from Allegheny County.
But Pennsylvania law treats pets as chattel to be divvied up, said state Rep. Anita Kulik, D-Kennedy Township.
Kulik wants to change that. She has introduced a bill that defines pets as “companion animals” and says they should be given special consideration during a divorce proceeding.
On Wednesday, Kulik said she is hopeful the bill will be considered for a vote this year. It is in the House Judiciary Committee.
Kulik handled divorce cases in private practice and, as a legislator, decided it was time for the law to address how pets are treated in such cases.
The proposal is supported by animal rights organizations and her constituents, according to Kulik.
However, family law attorneys in the region have mixed opinions on the bill.
Fox Chapel attorney Gus Sunseri said it would be helpful to have some guidance on the books. As a pet owner, he also understands the attachment people have to their animals.
“I think that the ownership of the pet transcends the ownership of personal property,” Sunseri said.
But Sunseri added, “I haven’t had an issue yet where there was a custody fight over the dog. Generally they work it out.”
In cases where the parties involved aren’t able to come to terms over a pet, it would be good to have parameters set in the law as Kulik’s proposal tries to do, Sunseri said.
Philip McCalister, a Lower Burrell attorney who lives in New Kensington, said the proposed legislation doesn’t define “companion animals.” That means it could cover any animal from a “pig to a chicken.”
Some rare birds are more valuable than real estate, he said.
McCalister said one of the guidelines in the legislation is: Who can afford to care for the pet the best — something that’s rarely equal.
“Should Mary lose possession of a dog because Joe makes three times her income?” McCalister asked.
It’s also tough to decide who the animal is most attached to.
“How do you prove that?” McCalister said.
In addition to his work as an attorney, McCalister serves as a court-appointed master who works out divorce agreements in Westmoreland County.
“I actually do believe the masters have the wisdom to make that decision without this restriction,” McCalister said.
Sorting out custody of pets comes up regularly, but he said it has never resulted in further litigation “over the pup or the cat or the bird or the pot-bellied pig.”
Michael J. Stewart Sr., a Greensburg attorney who specializes in family law, said he would need to study the legislation further before forming an opinion on it but added, “I certainly think there is some need for it.
“Under current law, pets are treated like personal property. Like the lamp in your living room,” Stewart said. “ Typically, you’re not going to rotate the possession of your lamp.”
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .