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Divorces take their toll on spouses and children. After months or more of fighting over alimony, what’s the best child custody arrangement, who gets to keep the home, and a variety of other issues, there may be one last obstacle to overcome – and it’s a doozy.

Who gets to keep the family dog?

Pets are property, not people

We know that people love their pets, and figuring out who keeps Fido is often one of the most contentious battles couples fight. For some, it’s a matter of ensuring the dog stays with the kids (“Kids need dogs”). For others, it may be able keeping control (“You took my marriage; you’re not taking my dog”). In some cases, it’s about keeping the beloved pet you brought into your marriage in the first place (“He was my dog first”). “A 2014 survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found a 22% increase in pet custody hearings in divorce court, which shows how important (and heated) this issue is,” according to

We understand. But the courts don’t, and in North Carolina, the family pet is just another piece of property to be equitably divided during a divorce. Unless you and your spouse can agree on a plan for Doug the Pug, the judge is going to decide who retains ownership rights of the family pet.

How do judges decide who keeps the dog in a NC divorce?

It depends. In our years of experience, we’ve seen judges make snap decisions, and we’ve seen them pore over evidence. Typically, they’ll look at who is in the best position to care for the animal, but there are some other factors that may come into play:

  • In cases involving domestic violence and animal cruelty. Under NC Gen Stat § 50B-3 (2018), a judge may issue a restraining order that awards possession of the pet to the person seeking the order.
  • In cases where there are minor children. Courts tend to keep pets with the kids. If they cannot, they may issue a “custody schedule” of sorts for the pet, so that if goes where the children go whenever possible.
  • In cases where the pet was inherited, or owned before marriage. Most people don’t inherit pets, but they may, if a parent passes away, or if the animal lives longer than most do (like horses and certain kinds of parrots). In these cases, the courts will usually consider the family pet separate property, and ownership will revert to whomever had the pet first.
  • In cases where the pet was a gift. Gifts, under most circumstances, stay with the recipient, not the giver.
  • In cases involving service animals. These always stay with the person who requires the animal, because they’re not really considered pets. If an email is registered as an “emotional support” animal, then the judge will likely award the pet to whomever registered it as such, on his/her own behalf.

Some ways to resolve dog ownership issues

One way to resolve who gets ownership of the dog is through a prenuptial agreement. Nobody marries with the hope of divorcing, but a premarital agreement can include a provision for the family pets.

Splitting custody of the dog is another common remedy. Here, each spouse agrees to take custody of the dog for an equal amount of time. Agreements can also include an agreement that one parent has essentially primary custody of the dog while the other parent has essentially visitation rights. Sharing a dog is often a good way for the spouses to remain friends – which is especially important if the spouses are parents of minor children.

Just as with children, the best interests of the dog should be considered. Spouses need to review who will be able to spend time with the dog, walk the dog, feed the dog, take the dog to the vet if problems arise, and other dog-related issues.

Charlotte family law judges and mediators understand how important pets are to people. Still, they are normally not inclined to want to spend much time deciding which spouse in a divorce keeps the family dog. At Epperson Law Group, PLLC, our lawyers help you prioritize your claims and work out agreements for many parts of your divorce case. When spouses can’t agree, we explain to judges why your dog is so important to you and your children. Call us in Charlotte, Boone, or Weddington at 704-321-0031, or visit our contact page, and schedule your consultation today.


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