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While you may pick a pet out and purchase it just like many other things you own, anyone who has a pet knows well that a pet is more than simply something you own. Without question, pets are valuable and important members of the family. They are loved, and truly add something irreplaceable to the lives of those who love them. As a result, what will happen to pets during a divorce is an issue that is arising with increasing frequency. To many who love their pets so much, it may seem strange to consider them as simply another piece of property to be divided. On the other hand, pets are not children, so the idea of a typical “custody battle” seems a strange concept as well. This leaves many people asking – what does happen to pets during a divorce? 

As with all issues that arise during a divorce, what will happen concerning pet custody during a divorce will depend upon the law of the state in which you live. Every state has slightly different laws, so consulting with an attorney on this, or any other issue that arises during your divorce is essential. Doing so can make all the difference between addressing your issues in a way that works well for everyone involved, or having a stressful experience where you ultimately end up dissatisfied with the process and the results. 

Some states have adopted laws specifically about pet custody, but in North Carolina, pets are still considered in the same category as household property. What does this mean, from a practical perspective? It means that if a divorce is litigated in a courtroom before a judge in a traditional manner, pets will be divided in the same way as all other property that a couple owns. Let’s take a closer look at a few helpful things to know about property division in North Carolina.

Understanding the Basics of the North Carolina Property Division Process 

Different states have different methods of dividing property, each stemming from a theory or philosophy about what is the fairest method of division. North Carolina follows an “equitable distribution” method of dividing property during a divorce. What impact does this have on the property division process in a practical sense? Essentially, “equitable distribution” means that during a divorce, the court will seek to split the property as evenly and fairly as possible between the spouses. This is usually accomplished by classifying the property in three ways:

  • Separate: North Carolina courts include separate property as property that was owned by either spouse before the marriage. It also usually includes property that was acquired during the marriage either through an inheritance or a gift from a third party. Sometimes, it also includes property acquired after the couple has separated and purchased with post-separation earnings.
  • Marital: Marital property typically includes property – assets and debts included – that was acquired by the couple during the marriage. It includes tangible property – like household items, the marital home, cars, boats, and pets – as well as intangible property like investments, pensions, and the like. 
  • Divisible: Divisible property typically includes any increases and decreases in the value of marital property after the date of separation, as well as property that was received after the date of separation as the result of marital efforts by either spouse before the time that the separation occurred, as well as any passive income that is generated by marital property but which is received after the separation. It also typically includes any post-separation increases in marital debt.

After the court determines what type of property it is, it will value the property and attempt to divide it as “equitably” or “fairly” as possible based upon the category that it falls into.

What does this mean as far as deciding which spouse will get to keep the family pets? Ultimately, if a pet was owned only by one spouse before the marriage, the pet will usually be viewed as the separate property of that particular spouse and will remain with that spouse following the divorce. If, on the other hand, the couple purchased the pet together during their marriage, then it will typically be considered marital property. This means that the court will consider with whom the pet will live as part of the process of dividing up all of the marital property fairly and equitably. 

As it determines which parent might keep the pet following the divorce, the court may consider factors like: 

  • How much tangible property each spouse is already receiving as part of the divorce;
  • Who currently provides most of the care for the pet; 
  • How much time each spouse can commit to caring for the pet;
  • The property that the pet might live at;
  • And any number of other factors at the discretion of the court.

It is important to understand that even after a court considers the important factors and decides which spouse will receive custody of the pets, the pets are still technically considered property. As a result, the spouse who does not receive custody will still be awarded property of “equal” value. Essentially, this means that the pet will be assigned a monetary value, and the spouse not receiving the pet will receive other marital property that is considered to be of equivalent value. 

While this is typically how a court will address issues of pet custody, it’s important to understand that in North Carolina, and every other state, there are other choices available that might give you more freedom and flexibility to resolve the matter in a way that works best for everyone involved.

A Closer Look at Other Options

Fortunately, litigating property division issues in a courtroom before a judge is no longer the only, or even the most frequently used option available to divorcing couples today. Increasingly, divorcing couples are choosing to resolve most of their issues almost entirely outside of a courtroom, using one of many alternative dispute resolution options available. Some of these include: 

  • Mediation;
  • Collaborative Law;
  • Lawyer-led Settlement Negotiations;
  • And more. 

There are many benefits to choosing one of these out-of-court methods of handling the divorce process, and those benefits extend to every issue, not only to pet custody. Choosing to work together with your spouse and your respective attorneys cooperatively and collaboratively truly gives you the freedom and flexibility to resolve all of your issues in a way that works best for your family. This includes working together to determine which custody arrangement might work best for your pets. 

One significant advantage of resolving the issue of pet custody out of court is that you can truly come up with any arrangement that you would like. Some families choose to divide the pets evenly – one parent takes the dog, and the other takes the cat, for example. Other families choose for the pets to follow the children – that is, when the parent has their custodial time with the children, the pets come too. Still other families choose to divide the time in each spouse’s home as evenly as possible, or on a schedule that works best for everyone involved. Truly, the options are limitless and influenced only by what truly works best for the family. 

The Law Office of Dustin McCrary – Here for You 

At the Law Office of Dustin McCrary, we understand divorce. We understand every aspect of the process, and we know how difficult and overwhelming it can seem. The good news is, that it doesn’t have to be. Wherever you are in the process, we’re here for you. Whatever issues you find yourself confronting – whether about your pets, your property, your finances, your children, or all of the above – we’re ready to help. At the Law Office of Dustin McCrary, we understand divorce law, and we know the best legal strategies to pursue on your behalf to address the issues that are most important to you. Divorce isn’t easy – but it can be manageable. We’ll walk with you every step of the way.


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