Weekly Family Law Update December 9, 2021

What happens to our pets if we divorce?

It goes without saying that going through divorce can be a stressful, emotional time.

But one factor that can greatly add to this is the uncertainty over what will happen to loved family pets.

Hopefully, the parties will be able to agree who should keep the pet(s), but what if they can’t? How does the law approach and resolve such disputes between separating couples?

The law

As far as the law is concerned, pets are simply property.

In theory at least, they are therefore treated in the same way as any other chattels, such as the contents of the former matrimonial home.

The court can make an order that the pet should belong to one of the parties, just as it can order that one party should have a certain piece of furniture.

We say ‘in theory at least’ because there are certain pet-specific principles that may be applied to a dispute over ownership of a pet, but we will come to those in a moment.

What is important to understand, however, is that, rightly or wrongly, the court is not specifically concerned with the welfare of the pet, in the same way that it would be with the welfare of a child.

The law does not use the same principles to resolve pet disputes as it uses to resolve children disputes.

And whilst the court can order the transfer of a pet to one party, it will not thereafter get involved in any dispute over the other party’s access to the pet (in one reported case the judge suggested that the parties refer any such dispute to a mediator or arbitrator).

And lastly, the court will not make a maintenance order covering the costs of keeping the pet, although it may possibly take into account such costs as a reasonable outgoing of the party owning the pet.

Agree if you can!

Hopefully all of the above will encourage pet lovers to sort out disputes over arrangements for their pets by agreement.

You can try to do this by discussing the matter with your spouse directly, by negotiating via solicitors, by asking a mediator to help you reach agreement, or even by referring the matter to arbitration, whereby the parties appoint an arbitrator to decide the matter, and agree to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision.

And agreeing matters has other advantages, alongside being quicker and cheaper than going to court. You can always agree an arrangement that a court will not order, such as one whereby the care of the pet is shared between the parties.

Thankfully, most pet disputes are resolved by agreement, but in the end if you can’t agree arrangements with your (former) spouse, then there may be no alternative but to ask the court to sort out the matter.

6 Matters the court may consider

As indicated above, the court will apply certain principles to any dispute over pet ownership. Some of these are just the sort of matters that may be taken into account in any dispute over chattels, and some are pet-specific. They include:

  1. Who purchased the animal? They may have a better claim to ownership. The same may apply if the pet was given as a gift to one of the parties.
  2. Who looked after the pet? The court may consider it appropriate that the pet remain with its primary carer.
  3. Who pays for the pet’s upkeep? including food, insurance and vet bills
  4. Whose name is registered on the pet’s microchip database? This might give an indication of true ownership.
  5. Who, if anyone, is going to remain in the former family home? Remember, it is also the pet’s home…
  6. Lastly, if there is more than one pet? The court may of course simply divide them between the parties.

How Prince Family Law can help?

At Prince Family Law we pride ourselves on offering a bespoke service tailored to each client’s individual needs. We offer an empathetic approach, fully understanding the difficulties and problems during a relationship breakdown.

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We offer a free 30-minute consultation for anyone interested in our services. Our excellent team of support staff are always on hand to offer reassurance and liaise with you and the fee earner involved in your case to ensure you receive a first-class service at a reasonable price.