Who Gets the Pets?
We don’t have to say it. We already know that your pets are important to you. Dogs and cats are sometimes our most loyal companions. They can be a huge source of comfort during a difficult break-up. Unfortunately, when a separating couple owns pets, they do have to decide who keeps them. Needless to say, this can be extremely difficult.
What Does the Law Say?
Some states treat animals almost like children. They will create a custody and visitation schedule for pets as if they were children. According to this article from The Bark, a dog magazine, Alaska is becoming one of those states. An Alaskan court recently ruled that the best interests of the animal should be taken into consideration. In North Carolina, the best interest of the child is what determines child custody, so it’s similar to that.
However, North Carolina, along with many other states, treats pets like property, not people. I speculate that this arises from a time in America when all domestic animals were kept for purposes other than companionship. In addition to livestock like cows, pigs, and sheep, dogs would be kept for hunting, herding, and protection. During that time, a dog would be treated more like an asset – like property – rather than like a fluffy best friend.
So what does this mean in North Carolina? Our case law concerning dogs, cats, and divorce doesn’t directly address this issue. But, cases of veterinary malpractice do. For example, Shera v. N.C. State Univ. Veterinary Teaching Hosp., 219 N.C. App. 117, 723 S.E.2d 352 (2012) recognizes that dogs are personal property, but that they are a special and unique kind of personal property that may have added value from their companionship and love which cannot be easily monetized. However, even that relatively recent case views pets as property, not sentient beings.
What Does That Mean for Me?
If you go to a North Carolina court and try to arrange a custody schedule for your pet, it’s not going to happen. Because pets are viewed as property here, the judge will consider the pet the same way she does a car, or a lamp, or a couch. Who brought the pet into the family? Who spent more time with the pet? How much is the pet worth? Where would it make sense for the pet to go? Those are the kinds of questions a judge might use to establish who gets to keep the pet.
However, many equitable distribution cases (the cases that decide who gets to keep what property in a divorce) are settled without going to court. So it’s possible that if you can work together with your ex, you can decide who gets to keep the pets or arrange for some kind of shared custody. However, please consider what is in the best interest of your pet. Is moving back and forth between houses going to upset them? What happens if your ex wants to move out of state and keep the pet? Is it going to upset you having to see your ex all the time just to trade the pet back and forth? As difficult as it sounds, it’s better to let one spouse keep the pet 100% of the time, and the other spouse say goodbye.
That just got sad. Here’s another cute dog picture to cheer you up:
If one party in a relationship was abusive, the abused partner may be rightfully worried about leaving their pets with the abuser. Abusers are known to get more violent when the abused partner tries to leave. They may retaliate by striking out against the family pet. If this is a concern, please consider the advice of Christine Garcia, a lawyer writing for the American Bar Association: “include named animals on restraining orders in family court. There is a place on restraining order applications to include family members, and I have found that courts have not opposed the inclusion of animals if good cause can be shown.” The entire article is linked here and is a good read if you want more in-depth answers.
OK, it got a little sad again. More animals!
Try to Agree, Then Move On
Trying to come up with an agreement with your ex is probably the best thing to do for you, your ex, your kids, and most importantly, your pet. You know your family better than anyone else, so you know who it makes sense to leave the dog or cat with when you and your spouse part ways. Judges are required by law to make impartial decisions. However, a judge just doesn’t know all the details as well as you do. Maybe your ex is moving to a tiny apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Maybe one of you can keep the dog and the other can keep the cat. If you owned the pet prior to starting the relationship, or if you were the one who took the dog out, kept it fed, and groomed it 95% of the time, those factors might all be great arguments for you keeping the pet. A good lawyer may be able to help you solve this problem by negotiating with your spouse or their attorney.
However, if you do have to move on and leave the pet with your ex, consider the fact that there are always wonderful animals out there looking for a loving home. Rebounding by jumping into a new romantic relationship after a breakup? Usually a bad idea. Rebounding by adopting a pet? Maybe cheaper and more effective than therapy. Here are some great local resources for adopting pets: