One of the potential casualties of separation and divorce is the family dog. Although I refer here to the family dog, these considerations also apply to other pets. While negotiating custody of the children and division of the marital assets, a couple may disagree over who will keep the family dog. Under North Carolina law, pets are considered personal property to be treated no differently than a table or chair. However, the pet lovers out there know the truth: these animals are beloved members of the family.
Deciding what to do with your pet when you are divorcing can be an emotionally-charged issue. Like child custody, pets can often become weapons for one spouse to use to hurt the other spouse. Some of the same considerations that go into child custody should apply with pets. Which spouse is staying in the marital residence? Which spouse is better able to care for the pet? Did one of you have the pet before you married? Are there children involved that are attached to the pet? What arrangement would be the least traumatic for the pet?
If you cannot agree, a judge will usually distribute the pet in equitable distribution, treating the pet like any other item of personal property. This is the risk you run if you and your spouse cannot come to an agreement. Under North Carolina law, a judge is not required to consider the best interest of the pet. For this reason, you and your spouse (and Fido) are better off if you can come to an agreement on your own.
Increasingly, pet owners are attempting to “co-parent” their pets. Or, if one spouse has primary custody of the pet, can you cooperate to allow the other parent to have visitation? When you consider sharing custody of a pet, remember that dogs and cats are sensitive to anger and conflict much like children are. If you and your spouse are constantly arguing your pet will sense the conflict. Also, pets are creatures of habit and routine. Therefore, you should try to exercise pet visitation in a consistent and predictable way. If you and your spouse are separating, don’t leave Fido’s fate to a judge who will treat him like property. Animals can bring great joy to our lives. Remember, when it comes to the contentious issues in your divorce, your pet does not have a dog in that fight.