Pet Custody After a Divorce or Separation

Pets are often considered another member of the family. Especially during stressful times like a separation, a family cat or dog is there to make us feel better. However, if a couple separates or gets a divorce, someone will decide who gets to keep custody of the pet. If you have questions about pet custody after a divorce in North Carolina, talk to your North Carolina family law attorney for help.

Pet Ownership and Divorce in North Carolina  

According to one survey, 68% of U.S. households own a pet. More than 60% of households own a dog and 47% own a cat, with other families owning birds, horses, reptiles, or other small animals. The percentage of homes with pets has increased over the years and so have disputes over pet ownership in divorce. 

Under North Carolina law, pets are considered property. Like other property in a divorce, it is up to the couple to decide how to divide up ownership of any pets. If the separating couple cannot come to an agreement on what to do about the pets, the court may have to decide where the pets go.

Marital Property or Separate Property 

In North Carolina property division, property is generally classified as marital property, separate property, or divisible property. A pet could be categorized as marital property or separate property in a divorce or separation. 

Marital property generally includes possessions and assets acquired by spouses during a marriage. 

Separate property is acquired before a marriage, or during the marriage as a gift or inheritance from an outside party. If the court determines that a possession is separate property, the spouse that the court determines owns it will typically get to keep the complete property for themselves after a divorce.

It is not always clear whether an animal is a shared or separate property. It can be helpful to look at some examples to understand when a dog, cat, or other pet may be considered separate or marital property.

Owned an Animal Before Marriage 

If one person had a pet dog or cat before the couple got married, the pet would generally be considered part of that individual's separate property. The animal would likely go with that original owner after a divorce or separation. 

However, if a couple was living together before getting married and decided together to get a pet, that animal may be considered marital property even if they got the animal before marriage. The court would have to look at all relevant factors before determining who gets the pet. 

Received the Pet as a Gift

A pet may be given as a gift to someone during the marriage. This can be complicated to determine whether the pet is then separate property or marital property. In North Carolina, gifts may be presumed to be marital property if they are received during the marriage unless the person who gave the gift intended the gift to be given solely to one person. Demonstrating the giver's intent can be difficult to prove and may require some evidence of the intent, through testimony or written evidence. 

If one spouse gives a puppy, kitten, horse, or other animal to the other spouse, that is generally considered marital property. Even if the spouse intended to give the animal only to the spouse, it may be considered marital property because the money used to buy the animal was likely out of marital funds. 

Pets and Children

Determining where the pets go when the couple has children can be more complicated. The best interests of the children are prioritized in divorce proceedings and when the children have a close attachment to the family pet, a judge is more likely to decide that custody of the pet goes to the parent who spends the most time with the children. 

Shared Custody of Pets and Visitation 

Sharing custody of pets is still a rare outcome in North Carolina divorce cases. Pets are still treated as property and a judge is not likely to award shared time with a pet just like the judge would not likely offer shared time in a family property. However, if the divorcing couple agrees to share custody, they can make arrangements as part of their separation agreement. 

Property division can be decided by the separating couple and if they can come to an agreement, the court will not have to step in to decide who gets what. If a couple can agree on sharing custody or allowing visitation for a pet, they may be able to make that part of their separation agreement. 

Shelby Divorce and Custody Lawyers  

If you are concerned about who will get ownership of a family pet after a divorce or separation, talk to experienced family law attorneys for help to make sure your pet will be protected. Contact the experienced divorce attorneys at Caulder & Valentine Law Firm, PLLC today for a consultation.