What happens to the family pet when a couple separates? Shared custody? Weekend visitation for dog park playdates? Who pays for the vet bills?
The answer really depends on whether the issue comes up in court for a judge to decide or whether it is addressed in a separation agreement. Courts, including courts in NC, have been divided on whether pets should be treated as property, and therefore, divided as such, or whether they should be treated more like children, with visitation rights and financial responsibility. A court in New Jersey ordered a couple to have shared custody of their dog, thus indicating the court’s preference to treat the dog more like a child than a sofa. The tendency in NC is still to treat the dog as property, with one person maintaining control and responsibility of the “property.”
However, there are a few options for separating couples who have pets. The most common way to formalize an agreement about the family dog is to address custody, vistitation, and financial responsibility of the pet(s) in a separation agreement. If litigation has already commenced, it may be possible to come to an agreement (often called a “consent” agreement/order) that addresses the family pets. These agreements become binding on each of the parties and can generally be enforced through the court’s contempt powers.
Unfortunately, some people are unable to come to an agreement, or domestic violence is involved. Recently, North Carolina enacted legislation that allows pets to be covered in Domestic Violence Protective Orders. Therefore, if a person seeking a protective order has pets, the pets can be covered in the order, including the temporary possession of the pets. This is a big step, considering that many offenders use the family pet to manipulate and abuse their victim(s).
For those of us who have pets, we know that Fido is more than a lamp or a car. If you are going through a divorce, be sure to ask your lawyer about what you can do now in order to ensure that your family pet is taken care of during this difficult time.