Who Gets the Pets?

It is easy to get attached to a pet, especially cats and dogs. They bring us comfort, keep us company, and become part of the family. But what happens to those pets when their owners split?

Pets are personal property

When a relationship goes south, figuring out who gets to keep the pets can become a contentious fight and often pets are used as a bargaining chip in divorces. State laws, including North Carolina, consider pets as personal property, just like the sofa or dining room furniture. However, unlike inanimate objects, animals have feelings and needs; and thankfully, the courts will take those needs into consideration. If spouses cannot agree on an arrangement for the pet(s), a judge will decide who gets the pets based on several factors:

  • In domestic violence situations, pets are now allowed to be protected by a domestic violence protective order and the C. Gen. Stat. 50(b) allows victims of domestic violence to request possession of a pet.
  • When was the pet adopted?
    • If the animal was adopted during the marriage, it will be considered marital property and in equitable distribution cases, the value of the animal is determined by market value and does not factor in emotional worth.
    • If the pet was adopted before the marriage the courts will usually place ownership with whomever had the pet first.
  • A judge may also consider who cares for the pet – feeds, takes them to the vet, spends time with the animal, buys their supplies, walks them, bathes them, trains them, etc. and who can best support the animal financially. For a judge to consider the best interests of the pet, the owner should provide documentation such as photos, videos, and receipts of care.
  • If minor children are involved, judges may opt to keep pets with the children and may decide on a “custody schedule” wherein the pet goes where the children go if possible.
  • If the pet was a gift or inherited from someone, the pet will usually stay with the recipient.
  • Service animals always stay with the person who requires the animal.

Ways to resolve pet ownership disputes

Coming to an agreement of ownership of the pet is the best way to avoid the legal battle and involving the courts. None of us expect to get divorced but preparing for the worst can be beneficial. There are several ways to come to an agreement over ownership:

  • A pet-nuptial agreement is a legal document that can declare ownership and responsibility of the animal in the event of a break-up whether you are married or not.
  • If you are crafting a pre-marital agreement or a post-marital agreement, provide stipulations regarding ownership of pets, either current and/or future.
  • Provisions in a separation agreement providing rightful ownership and financial responsibility can be added for pets.

If both spouses are bonded to the pet, a joint schedule is a common solution in separation agreements. Similar to a child custody schedule, each spouse takes possession of the pet based on their agreed upon schedule. It can also be agreed that one spouse maintains ownership of the pet while the other spouse has a visitation schedule.

The attorneys at Ward Family Law Group can work with you to ensure your pet’s safety and wellbeing.

Ward Family Law Group

At Ward Family Law Group, we only practice family law. Period. Our lawyers are equipped to handle complex financial issues and high-conflict child custody disputes. We provide individualized attention and aggressive representation and strive to find creative, cost-effective, timely solutions for our client's and their families.

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