What Happens to the Family Pet in a Divorce?

What happens to your  four-legged family during a divorce? Who can claim custody of the family pet? Lee Rosen, retired divorce attorney and founder of the Rosen Law Firm, explains.

What happens to the family pet in a divorce? Transcript

Hi, I’m Lee Rosen. What happens to the family pet in a divorce?

There’s a reason that people refer to dogs, and I guess to cats to a lesser extent, as “man’s best friend.” People do get very attached to their pets. It’s natural, we fall in love. And when we’re going through a divorce, I think pets become even more significant. It’s somebody that gives us back that unconditional love, and when we’re going through a traumatic time it’s wonderful to have some presence in our life that we can stay attached to. Something that’s consistent when things are sort of falling apart.

Unfortunately, that relationship with the pet can become complicated by the divorce. We get into disputes where one spouse wants the pet to go with them, and the other spouse wants to keep the pet as well. And these can become very high conflict situations. I’ve seen them take on a life of their own to the point where they become a bigger battle than even the battle over the children.

And so there is no question that the custody of dogs and cats and other pets can become a very big, very emotional deal when we’re dealing with divorce in North Carolina. Some states do, in fact, treat pets like children. They will hear the evidence and come up with a custody schedule laying out visitation times and an elaborate system, maybe alternating weekends, maybe evenings. It can be literally just like dealing with children.

That is not, however, the way it’s done in North Carolina. North Carolina does not treat pets like children. In fact, North Carolina treats pets like property. For all intents and purposes, a pet is treated just like a car or a house or any other item of property, and so the judge will not lay out a schedule and will, in fact, say that this pet belongs to either the husband or to the wife and there will be no further schedule laid out or planned out. Someone’s going to own the cat or the dog and someone’s not, and that’s just the way it is in this state.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not work to be done. In fact, when we’re not in the courtroom, and that’s most commonly the case, most of the time we’re able to reach agreement in these cases. And so we’re able to reach agreement about the pets as well. And we’re not prohibited from coming up with some sort of schedule or plan for visitation with animals that even though court wouldn’t do it, the parties are permitted to do it by agreement.

And so if you choose to, you can work out a plan just like you might work out a plan with your children, but – and this is a big but – our experience is that that’s not advisable. Our experience is that you’re better off with a clean break. Now I know that that’s gut-wrenching and difficult, but in our experience, having one spouse take the animal and the other spouse adjust is probably, for the long-term, the way to go. It certainly will be painful in the short term, but I think you will find that it works for you and for your family over the long haul.

I hate to be the one to say that to you, but we’ve done this many, many times and that seems to be what works ultimately best for most families. The pet issue is emotionally charged. It’s difficult, but it can be worked out. It can be resolved, and North Carolina has a system in place for dealing with it. I hope you don’t have to use that system. I hope you’re able to reach agreement.

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