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Divorce and the Family Pet

Dogs are a large part of many families. But what happens with the family pet when you are separating or seeking a divorce?

Although many consider pets family, North Carolina considers pets as property. Like all other property, they could be subject to equitable distribution. North Carolina is an equitable distribution state where the property of the marriage is to be split equitably among both parties. The court may not always split the property evenly, but it must be split equitably between both parties. Under N.C.G.S. § 50-20, the parties’ property must be classified as separate, divisible, or marital, valued, and divided between them. This classification, valuation, and division applies to family pets.

Unlike your furniture, we cannot replace our pets with money or just another animal. The time, effort, love, and energy spent raising animals builds a bond. Whether this effort comes from the entire family or just one member, applying value to the affection, protection, and companionship of your pet is impossible because they are priceless.

Suppose you owned the pet before the marriage. In that case, that pet will generally be considered your separate property and not subject to equitable distribution. However, if the parties acquire the pet during the marriage, that pet may be subject to North Carolina’s equitable distribution statute.

It is generally easier for the parties to agree as to who will take the pet. There are instances where parties have entered into a “visitation agreement” for the pet in question as part of a separation agreement. These agreements can designate what vet to use, what days each party gets the pet, and who is responsible for expenses for the animal. This type of agreement is enforceable under contract law but will likely cost more money to enforce than the action is worth.

To determine who will have the pet, the parties should consider who spends more time with the pet, who was the pet’s primary caretaker, which party has the better living arrangement for the pet, and which party has the time to care for and exercise the pet. If there are children involved, consider if it is feasible to include the animal in the custody schedule. If the parties cannot agree due to a hostile divorce, the court will decide on ownership.

If your situation involves domestic violence, N.C.G.S. § 50B-3(a)(8) states that a protective order can provide for “possession of personal property,” which includes “the care, custody, control of any animal owned, possessed, kept, or held as a pet by either party or minor child residing in the household.” If there is a threat of domestic violence, you must protect your children, yourself, and your pets.

If you are considering either separation or divorce, and there is a family pet that will be a source of contention, an experienced family law attorney can answer your questions relating to equitable distribution and family pets.