Who Gets the Dog? How North Carolina Family Courts Decide Pet Custody

Posted by Jonathan Jerkins | Apr 20, 2022 | 0 Comments

Aside from child custody issues, perhaps one of the most emotionally charged questions in North Carolina divorce cases is "who gets the dog?" Or, more generally, which spouse gets to keep the family pet? The reason is that we typically see our pets as part of the family, and we bond with them just as if they were our children. Unfortunately, the court doesn't see our pets the same way as we do. Let's talk about how North Carolina family courts determine pet custody.

Pets Are Property, Not Children

In North Carolina, pets are considered personal property, just like your furniture, clothing, and other belongings. A pet is an asset, not a person. That means that the court isn't going to treat custody of Fido or Fluffy in the same way as it would a human child. If you and your ex don't mutually agree on who should keep the dog, the court will effectively consider the dog as part of the overall property to be divided equivalently between the two of you. Unfortunately, if you are both equally bonded to the pet, one of you will feel the loss.

How the Court Decides Custody of Pets

The judge will determine pet custody by prioritizing certain factors, including whether one of you owned the pet before marrying, who primarily takes care of the pet, etc.

If one of you adopted the pet before you were married... default, the court will give the pet to the person who first adopted it. Anything you owned before entering the marriage is considered separate property rather than marital property. So if you purchased the pet before marrying, the court considers it to be separate property, and therefore it is exclusively yours.

If you both adopted the pet while married...

...custody becomes a bit more complicated because the pet is marital property and must be considered among other assets to be divided between you. In this case, the court will look at a variety of factors to decide who should keep the pet after divorce, such as:

  • Who primarily takes care of the pet? This includes feeding, walking, grooming, vet visits, etc.
  • Is the pet more bonded to one of you than the other?
  • Who is in the best position to care for the pet (e.g., financially, time-wise, etc.)?

Obviously, a pet cannot be divided 50/50, so when the court awards custody of the pet to one of you, the judge will also assign a monetary value to the dog, cat, bird, etc., and will award the other spouse another asset of equivalent property value to keep things "fair."

The Best Way to Determine Pet Custody

Deciding who gets to keep the pet after divorce can be a tricky and heart-rending issue. Rather than have the courts decide based on a cold set of criteria, the least painful way to come to an agreement on pet custody is to try to reach a mutual decision outside of court. Whether in pre-divorce negotiations or divorce court, the attorneys at Jerkins Law Firm can help you leave your marriage with the things that matter most to you. Call us today at (919) 719-2785 or contact us online.

About the Author

Jonathan Jerkins

Jonathan "Jay" Jerkins, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, intentionally focuses his practice on all aspects of North Carolina family law litigation and negotiations. Jay was admitted to the practice of law in North Carolina in 2014.


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