Although many people consider their pets to be part of the family, in the eyes of the law, your furry friend is either property or an asset. So, like all other possessions in a divorce, ownership of your dog, cat, rabbit, or other domestic animal is included in the property division negotiation.
You can try to reach a mutual pet custody agreement with your spouse similar to a child custody arrangement. If you can’t decide what to do, however, the judge in your case will consider several factors to determine who gets the animal.
Marital and Separate Property: When Was the Pet Adopted?
Since domestic animals are considered property and not children, the first factor in determining who gets custody is whether it was acquired during or before the marriage. Unlike child custody cases, pets adopted before a marriage are considered the sole property of the individual who purchased them. This is called separate property, and a judge will almost always award possession of the animal to the person who bought it and not consider the animal in the division of marital assets.
On the other hand, an animal adopted during your marriage is marital property, so determining who gets the animal becomes a bit more complicated. Though most courts still consider pets property, precedents have been set that apply considerations similar to child custody cases. When determining who gets the animal, a judge may choose to look at factors such as:
- The current primary caregiver
- Bonds between the pet and one owner
- Ability to best care for the animal
RELATED ARTICLE: 5 Common Questions About Property Division During A Divorce
Asset Division: Weighing the Pet’s Value Against Other Property
Even if the animal is given to one owner over the other based on the factors above, the court will still consider the animal property. The owner who is not granted custody will receive something of equal value. In other words, in asset division, the animal is assigned a monetary value and weighed against other martial property to be divided by the divorcing couple. The emotional value of the animal will not be factored into the equation.
In the eyes of the divorce court, a purebred animal is worth more than a mixed breed animal adopted from a shelter. If you have a purebred show animal and wish to receive possession of the animal in your divorce, be prepared for the court to assign a monetary value to the animal and for that value to be offset by other assets going to your spouse.
Because most pets have much more than a monetary value to both parties, you don’t want the judge deciding who gets possession based solely on a dollar figure. This is one of the major reasons most couples seek to solve their pet possession issues outside of court.
Exceptions and Atypical Circumstances
Most of the time, ownership of a pet will be decided based on the considerations mentioned above. However, there are a few exceptions and atypical circumstances that might affect who gets the animal in your divorce.
If domestic violence is involved in the situation and one of the parties files a domestic violence lawsuit, a North Carolina judge has the right to grant the victim full custody of the animal.
Emotional Support or Service Animals
If the animal is registered as the emotional support companion or a service animal for one of the spouses, a judge is very unlikely to grant the animal to the other spouse.
Gifts: The Animal Belongs to One Person Specifically
One detail included in separate property during a divorce is that gifts or inheritance belonging to one spouse is considered separate property, even if was acquired during the marriage. While it is unlikely a pet would be inherited, if the animal was a gift to one spouse in particular, it’s separate property.
When child custody is involved in the divorce, the parent who receives sole or primary custody of the child will often also receive possession of the pet. This is especially true if the child is bonded to the pet. If child custody is shared and the child is uniquely attached to the pet, the judge may consider whether the pet should follow the child during their visitation schedule.
Spouses Can Create Pet Custody Agreements
If you and your spouse both want custody of the animal and choose to settle the issue between yourselves rather than in court, you can sign a pet custody agreement. Like a child custody agreement, you will decide and agree upon aspects of the animal’s life — including who gets the animal on what days, how bills and vet visits will be handled, and the type of food or medication the animal receives.
Like child custody, pet custody agreements are legally binding, and a judge can enforce the visitation schedule and other agreed-upon terms. Spouses have complete freedom in writing a pet custody agreement, which is why it’s best for divorcing couples to attempt an agreement before leaving the fate of their pet to the court.
Call Myers Law Firm if You Need Help With Property Division in Charlotte, North Carolina
Are you and your spouse going to court over custody of your pet or looking for help drafting a pet custody agreement that covers all the bases? Myers Law Firm is here to help. Our divorce attorneys have experience handling property division cases and custody battles throughout Mecklenburg County, and we’ll fight to get the best outcome for you and your pet.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.