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Who Gets Custody of Pets in a Divorce?


Many couples treat their pets like they are family members. When such a couple goes through a divorce, deciding who gets custody of those beloved pets can quickly become a heated dispute.

It is interesting to see new approaches to this issue that have emerged in recent years.

For instance, a recently enacted law in Alaska requires judges to take into account the well-being of pets when deciding which spouse gets custody.

According to USA Today, Alaska is the first state in the country to require courts to consider a pet’s well-being when resolving a custody dispute.

The new law also authorizes judges to include pets in domestic violence protective orders and allows for joint-custody arrangements, according to the newspaper.

Michigan State University law professor David Favre told USA Today that the law could prove to be groundbreaking.

“For the first time, a state has specifically said that a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property — that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners, he said.

Where a pet’s “best interests” may be considered, it is interesting to think about what evidence you could present to a court to show that a pet should stay with you instead of your spouse.

For instance, you could possibly assert that you would be better situated to provide care for the pet and the pet’s needs such as food, shelter, exercise, grooming, and training.

Most States Treat Pets as ‘Property’

Most states, including North Carolina, do not take the Alaska approach. Instead, they treat pets as property.

In North Carolina, for example, it is not clear that joint custody would even be possible unless you and your spouse were able to reach your own agreement and both of you agreed to follow it.

North Carolina is one of the many states that follow the rules of equitable distribution when it comes to dividing marital property in a divorce.

Under this scheme, courts do not always distribute marital property evenly between divorcing spouses. Instead, they take into account the circumstances of both people and attempt to make a fair (but not always equal) distribution of marital property.

So, when it comes to deciding ownership of pets, a court would look at a valuation of how much the pet is worth, award the pet to one party and then award something of comparable value to the other party.

Keep in mind: Equitable distribution of property applies only to marital property. If you brought the pet into the marriage or received the pet as a gift during the marriage, you may be able to argue that the pet is your separate property and not subject to division or distribution in the divorce.

One exception to this rule: When it comes to domestic violence protective orders in North Carolina, a pet may be given to a victim of domestic violence as part of the order.

How Can You Resolve a Pet Custody Dispute in Your Divorce?

Because pets are generally considered to be property, it will be easier for you, your spouse, and your pets if you can reach a mutual property division agreement rather than leaving it up to a court to decide the issue.

If you are considering sharing custody of your pets, you should consider:

  • What is the value of the pet?
  • Who will have primary custody of the pet?
  • Who will be credited with the value of the pet?
  • Will one spouse get pet visitation rights? If so, what will be the visitation days or hours?
  • Who will make decisions about the pet’s medical care such as choosing the primary veterinarian?
  • Who will watch the pet if the primary owner needs to travel or is no longer able to take care of the pet?

If you have more than one pet, you may need to reach separate agreements for each one.

A Divorce Attorney Can Help You

If you are in the middle of a divorce, your pet’s future may be giving you considerable stress. Try to remember that it will be easier if you and your spouse can reach an agreement on the pet’s custody.

If your spouse is the one that provides most of the care for the pet and is anxious to keep the pet, you should try to avoid a major conflict over the issue. Just like you may do with children, try to reach a settlement through a separation agreement that considers the well-being of your pet and what is best for the pet.

A family law attorney can help guide that agreement and try to work with your spouse’s attorney to find a solution that is acceptable to both of you.

If you and your spouse are both able to approach the issue from the perspective of concern for the pet, then both of you should be able to find peace whether you have full custody or not of the pet.