When Divorce Goes to the Dogs: Custody of Family Pets During a Divorce

When a marriage ends through separation and/or divorce, two of the primary issuesDog the spouses have to deal with are custody of minor children and dividing marital property and responsibility for marital debts. But what about beloved family pets? For many of us our dogs, cats, fish and other pets are an important part of the family. What happens when you and your spouse can’t agree on what happens to Fido or Felix?

Are Pets Property or Family Members?

Courts usually to take one of two approaches to how to handle custody or possession of pets during a divorce. Some states view custody of family pets the way they view custody of minor children: they analyze the needs of the pet and determine what is in the pet’s best interest and then award custody and/or visitation accordingly. Other states, including North Carolina, view family pets as marital property to be included in the overall process of classifying, valuing and dividing the marital estate. 

How Do North Carolina Courts Handle Pets in a Divorce?

In North Carolina, family pets are lumped in with other marital assets such as furniture, bank accounts, jewelry, vehicles, etc. which are first classified as either “marital” or “separate” property, and then each given a value, the total of which is then usually equally divided between the parties. In classifying a pet as martial or separate property, a court will look at whether one of the parties owned the property before the marriage or whether the pet was acquired during the marriage. If acquired during the marriage, the pet is then valued based upon replacement cost to acquire a pet of a similar breed, age, condition, etc. Intrinsic, emotional, or sentimental value is not taken into consideration in valuing the pet. Since the pet can’t be divided in half, possession of the pet will be awarded to one spouse or the other, and the spouse not receiving the pet will offset the pet by receiving other marital property of equal value. 

What If I Don’t Want a Judge to Decide Who Gets Fido?

An alternative to allowing a court to award a pet as part of the equitable distribution proceeding would be to include provisions related to “custody” and/or “visitation” of a pet in a Separation Agreement (learn more about those here).  Using this approach, the parties can craft an arrangement where each is allowed to enjoy time with a pet and share in the cost of the care and feeding of the pet.  If there are minor children of the marriage, we often counsel our clients to consider having the family pet follow the same custody schedule as the children.  Having a beloved companion with them as they navigate a shared custody arrangement is often reassuring for children.

What Should I Do If I’m Worried About Losing My Pets?

If you are in the middle of or thinking about a separation or divorce, and worried about what might happen to your pets, contact our experienced family law attorneys to arrange for a consultation to discuss your concerns. 

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