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Pets & Divorce in North Dakota

What Happens to Pets in a Divorce?

/ Family Law

Nowadays many pet owners consider their “fur babies” to be their children.  In fact, the number of pets in the United States has grown significantly, with approximately 63% of United States households owning a pet. This equates to approximately 71 million pets, 44 million of which are dogs.  That is a lot of “fur babies” and “fur parents.” The amount of money we spend on our pets has also grown exponentially. Pet owners spent approximately 41 billion on their “fur babies” in 2014, which is a 24 billion increase from 1994.

Unfortunately, the importance of having “fur babies” in our households has only increased the issues involved when “fur parents” decide to divorce or separate, which leaves the residential responsibility of their “fur babies” in flux.

View of the Courts in North Dakota

While the North Dakota Supreme Court has yet to analyze this exact issue, it is likely they will consider pets as personal property, as the vast majority of other Courts do. Because pets would likely be considered personal property, the Court would award them to a party based upon the equitable distribution statutes in effect in North Dakota. This means that the Court will most likely not consider the best interests of your “fur baby” when determining residential responsibility and parenting plans, unlike cases involving minor children.

Changing Views of Courts

As most people know; however, the law is always evolving and changing based on the needs of society. It appears that one of the trending needs is for Courts to consider the best interests of pets, during a couple’s divorce or legal separation. The litigation surrounding this issue has increased significantly over the past decade. In fact, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has published an article outlining the factors a Court should consider when awarding residential responsibility of a pet to one party. Ironically, the best interest factors proposed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund closely resemble those considered by the Court for cases involving minor children.

Perhaps one of the most notable “fur baby” custody cases was that involving the beloved Gigi, who was owned by Dr. Stanley and Linda Perkins. Initially the parties were awarded joint custody of the adopted pointer-greyhound mix; however, the parties were not in agreement with this arrangement. Gigi quickly became a central figure in their divorce proceeding, and apparently consumed almost two days of their three-day divorce trial. The Court even ordered a bonding study prepared by an animal behaviorist. The Court relied on this study as well as other evidence, that included videos of Gigi lounging at home and playing at the beach. The Court battle over custody of Gigi continued for two years, and caused the parties to rack up approximately $150,000 in legal fees and in the end Linda Perkins was awarded custody of her “fur baby,” Gigi.

While certain Courts may be more inclined to consider what is in the pet’s best interest, this is certainly not the norm and may not be for quite some time. Unfortunately, until that time it is best for parties with “fur babies” to try and negotiate an agreement amicably. If the parties are able to do this, then the situation may be better for everyone, including the “fur baby.”

If you have any questions regarding your pets and the proper way to handle your given situation during divorce or a legal separation, we welcome your call at Severson, Wogsland & Liebl in Fargo. And as always, if you have general questions about family law, which includes adoptions, prenuptial or postnuptial agreements, child custody or support matters, guardianships or conservatorships, and of course divorce, contact Greg Liebl or Jennifer Albaugh in the Family Law Division at Severson, Wogsland & Liebl. Greg and Jennifer can be contacted by phone at 701-297-2890.

See Custody of Companion Animals in Divorces and Separations (last visited September 14, 2015).