Written by Jonathan Breeden
Dogs and other pets feel like family members. During a divorce, they are often caught in the crossfire as spouses struggle for custody. North Carolina laws can guide who gets the family pet, but the matter can be complicated.
Even though they may feel like family, in North Carolina, family pets are considered property or assets. Thus, you can divide them as you would any other property – through an agreement. If you cannot reach an agreement, then the court may be forced to place ownership of the pet with one spouse or the other.
You can develop a pet custody agreement like a child custody agreement. However, the judge will consider many factors when determining “custody.” Some factors the court will consider include:
North Carolina law states that property will be divided equitably in a divorce. Property is divided based on whether it’s a marital or separate asset. Separate assets are generally acquired before marriage, while marital assets are purchased or acquired during a marriage.
Pets can be marital or separate assets. If one spouse owned them before the marriage, they might be considered separate property. If the pet was acquired during the marriage, it is likely marital property. The court will determine who gets the pets like any other property.
Because a family pet cannot be physically divided, it might be given to one spouse. Other assets will be given to the other spouse in the pet’s place. It is rare for the court to develop a custody agreement.
There are some exceptions for determining pet custody. For example, if a pet were a gift to one spouse, then that spouse would likely be given custody of it by the court. If a pet is actually a service animal, then the spouse who needs the assistance would receive sole custody.
You can draft a pet custody agreement like a child custody agreement. You can even include pet support if you want. A pet custody agreement is simply a contract you and your spouse must follow.
A pet custody agreement should include how time will be shared. You might split time evenly, or one spouse might have primary custody while the other has visitation. It might be beneficial to match it to your child custody agreement and visitation schedule if you have children.
You should also consider who will pay for pet expenses like insurance, medical costs, grooming, food, and other needs. You might incorporate a pet support payment from the noncustodial parent to supplement the pet’s needs.
If you are seeking a divorce and a pet is involved, you should work with an experienced lawyer who can ensure you do what is best for your entire family. Your children will likely have strong feelings about who gets custody of the family pet as well. You should consider everything.