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Pet Custody

What happens to pets when a family splits because of separation or divorce?

In North Carolina, pets caught in divorce are generally considered personal property, and the court has the same authority to distribute them to a spouse or former spouse in the same manner as a coffee table.  When the court determines which person will keep which pet, there is no legal requirement that the judge base his or her decision on the best interest of the animal.  Moral or ethical standards are not necessarily the same as legal requirements.  In marital property cases, judges will assign a value to an animal and grant ownership of it to one of the parties as he or she sees fit.

There is a trend in the legal world towards animals having a meaning greater than the coffee table or some other piece of property, even if the trend starts with baby steps. North Carolina has created very specific legislation to allow the court to consider the pets when there is domestic violence in a family, even where there are no minor children.  NC Gen. Stat. §50B-3 says the court may “Provide for possession of personal property of the parties, including the care, custody, and control of any animal owned, possessed, kept, or held as a pet by either party or minor child residing in the household.”

Most of the time, people can reach some agreement about who keeps the dog or the cat.  It is uncommon for people to leave it to the judge to award a pet to one spouse or the other.  But what can pet owners do to resolve these disputes based on what they think is in the pet’s best interest?  If both people agree, they can enter into a contract concerning their pets.  They can specify where the animal(s) will live or be pastured, set aside regular visitation times for each person to see the pet, and even arrange for the costs and medical care.

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