Pet Custody: Are pets family or property in NC Divorce?

According to national statistics, 62% of homes have one or more pets. It is no surprise that divorce disputes about who gets the family pet are common – and they are often contentious. For most people, pets are an important part of the family, but for some, they are considered valued family members. Fights over pet custody can stall or even halt divorce settlement proceedings leaving no alternative but litigation to resolve the matter. If your pet is a valued part of your life, you should make your attorney aware of your feelings up front.

Are Pets Property in North Carolina?

Although most people value their pets as more than a piece of property, North Carolina – like most other states in the country – continue to determine custody of pets by identifying them as property and including them in the equitable distribution process. There does seem to be a trend in some states to treat pets more like children, considering their best interests and even awarding visitation rights to the non-custodial spouse. That approach to pet custody is, however, not how North Carolina treats the issue.

How is Pet Custody Decided in North Carolina?

In North Carolina, pet custody is determined by state laws governing marital property. As such, pets are considered the same as other household goods like furniture and jewelry. In determining the value of a pet, the court considers only fair market value of the pet and does not factor in emotional or sentimental attachment.

In accordance with the equitable distribution process, the pet is first classified as marital or separate property. If it is marital property, the pet will be valued and awarded to one spouse while the other spouse will receive credit for that value. If the pet belonged to one spouse before the marriage or one spouse can prove the pet was a gift from a third party, it will be classified as separate property and will be awarded to that spouse.

If there has been an issue of domestic violence in the marriage, the courts treat the award of pets differently. North Carolina law now allows pets to be covered by domestic violence protective orders and in a divorce settlement, the judge will normally award the pet to the victimized spouse if there is evidence the offending spouse engaged in cruel behavior toward the pet as well as toward his or her spouse.

Pet Custody Agreements

Divorcing couples can avoid having a judge lump their pet in with the furniture by crafting an agreement outside court. It is commonly made part of their separation agreement or it can be a separate pet custody agreement. These are binding contracts and can be enforced by the court if necessary. The agreement can include matters such as terms of sharing or custody, visitation if applicable and financial arrangements.