What Happens to Pets in a Divorce?

Some couples never have children, and their beloved cat, dog, bird, or reptile is treated much like a child. The question is, what happens to these pets in a divorce? Can you get pet custody? Does North Carolina law treat pets like children in terms of custody rights, visitation rights, and what is in the pet’s best interest?

Pets are Property in a Divorce

In North Carolina, pets are treated as property, much like a computer or television. A determination will be made as to whether your pet is separate property (i.e. bought before the marriage) or is marital property (i.e. bought during the marriage). Then, a value will be placed upon your pet (your pet is priceless, right?). Finally, your pet will either be awarded to you or your former spouse by the court. At this time, North Carolina law does not take into account the emotional bond you have with your pet, who has been the “primary caregiver” of your pet, or what is in your pet’s best interest to determine which person is awarded your pet.

If you are seeking a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) in North Carolina, then you have the option to request the “care, custody, and control” of any animal owned, possessed, kept, or held as a pet. When there are allegations of domestic violence, the law does provide some protection to pets that may be exposed to, or may be the target of, violence in the home.

Visitation Rights with my Pet

As mentioned above, the court will determine whether you or your former spouse will be awarded the beloved family pet. Many clients ask if there is any way they can share time with their pet with the former spouse.

Yes, there is a way! You and your former spouse must come to an agreement, outside of court, in order to have a “visitation schedule” with your pet.

Do Other States Treat Pets the Same way in a Divorce?

Most states are in line with North Carolina; however, three states have passed laws that allow judges to consider what is in the best interests of the pet to determine who will get custody of the pet, rather than treating the pet like a computer. Currently in 2019, California, Alaska, and Illinois are the only states who have adopted this mindset, but it is likely other states will follow suit. (See http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pets-assets-family-divorce-custody for more discussion on this topic.)

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