(Credit: Steph McGinley)

(Credit: Steph McGinley)


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I’ve been asked before if people really do fight over pets. The answer is “yes.” You may have heard of the story about singer/actress Mandy Moore and her estranged husband Ryan Adams. She recently filed for spousal support to cover the cost of caring for their eight pets. It’s a very unique approach, but not one that Pennsylvania recognizes. As a matter of fact, Pennsylvania considers pets as personal property.

A Pennsylvania 2002 Superior Court case involved a Property Settlement Agreement giving custody of the couple’s dog, Barney, to the wife. Believe it or not, the agreement provided that the husband had visitation. Unfortunately, the wife moved and she no longer made their pet, Barney, available for visits. The husband then filed for shared custody of the dog. After a hearing in which the court did not enforce the agreement, the court explained that, “Despite the status owners bestow on their pets, Pennsylvania law considers dogs to be personal property.” In other words, the court said, any terms set forth in the Property Settlement Agreement that provide for custodial visitation with or shared custody of personal property, are void. It’s known as the “Barney rule.” A dog is personal property.

Then the court wrote the sentence that is most often quoted in articles on pet custody and that has angered animal advocates everywhere: “Husband is seeking an arrangement analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.” How is this possible? Dog and cat lovers, unite. This is the status in most states around the country.

For pet lovers all over the world, animals are critically important in their lives. People mourn animals when they are lost; they use them to help get through an illness; and they love them dearly, often as much as their own children. Pets are loyal, loving and faithful. Have you seen the pictures of the dog lying on the grave of his master? How can your pet, Barney, suddenly be the same as a table?

As a result of DeSanctis v. Pritchard, Pennsylvania now has the “Barney Rule.” You cannot enforce an agreement on dog custody. The last one to have the dog is the one who keeps the dog.

This post was authored by Lynne Gold-Bikin. Lynne is a nationally renowned family law attorney who has frequently appeared on the major networks and has been quoted in prominent newspapers and magazines discussing domestic issues. Winner of numerous awards, Lynne handles divorce and custody matters. Lynne may be reached at lgold-bikin@wglaw.com.