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In the midst of a divorce or separation, couples often instruct solicitors hoping to obtain advice on issues relating to property, finances, assets and children. For many, however, the family pet can be the most important issue in separation, with disputes arising as to who will have ownership of the pet, who will pay for its food and vet bills and where the pet will live following separation.
In England and Wales, pets are classed as ‘chattels’. This means that they are treated as an ‘inanimate’ object or an item of personal property in much the same way as a TV or a painting. UK law fails to make specific provisions for pet disputes, and the rules differ when you are married or not married.
Although many see their pets as their children, sadly the Courts will not necessarily share this view.
When trying to resolve a dispute about a pet the Judge will have regard to the following factors:
The court’s approach will generally be the same as for any other asset and the proportionality of the costs of litigating such issues will be one of the main considerations.
In cases where both parties have cared for and financially supported the pet jointly, the love and attention afforded to a pet and the animal’s welfare may carry some weight. Still, the focus will usually be on ownership. Ultimately, the Court will base its decision on the facts/merits of the case.
The outcome of any decision could mean the following:
However, pets are not something the family court will wish to focus on or spend a considerable amount of time on, particularly when they are likely to be other priorities such as children, finances and property matters.
S v S  EWHC 519: the court had regard to the wife’s wish to keep her horses. They noticed that it would have been unreasonable to have awarded her sufficient means to enable her to keep up her life with horses if the parties’ means had been insufficient to permit the husband comfortably from accommodating such spending. As long as the husband’s income was well able to permit him to continue to finance an aspect of the wife’s life that had been integral to the marriage, such an award was not unfair. However, if the husband were to be made redundant or he retired, the horses would become an unjustifiable extravagance and the wife should plan accordingly.
RK v RK  EWHC 3910: The wife made a claim to one of the family dogs. The judge said he did not consider it appropriate to make any order in respect of one of the dogs because, on the evidence he had heard, they had been looked after principally by the husband.
A prenuptial agreement is an agreement used if you intend to marry your partner and wish to set out any arrangements should the relationship end and a cohabitation agreement does the same thing for couples who do not marry but intend to live together. You may wish to set out arrangements for the care of the family pet, including who they belong to and who they will live with should the relationship come to an end.
A cohabitation agreement is an agreement used if you do not intend to marry your partner and will generally set out the same aspects as above.
Both agreements are a favourable way to avoid difficulty and contention upon separation.
On the breakdown of your relationship, attempt to reach an informal agreement regarding the pets of the family. If there are children to consider, perhaps if you are sharing care of the children, the pet could travel with the children.
If you are not able to reach an informal agreement, approach a mediator who has expertise in disputes involving pets.
If mediation is unsuccessful, consider instructing a solicitor. This could lead to a negotiated agreement surrounding the pets.
If an agreement cannot be negotiated, consider arbitration. The process is quicker than court proceedings, and decisions are binding on the parties.
Court should be a last resort for the parties. Court is expensive and you will likely encounter significant delays. Due to backlogs and staff shortages, you may also be unlikely to present your case to the fullest, and any result may not be what you expected.
Alaska has become the first state in the US to give judges the power to consider the wellbeing of an animal in custody disputes. Judges now must address the interests of companion animals when deciding how to deal with the ownership of such animals in separation or divorce proceedings.
Children tend to be considered as more important as there are often worries on the impact that the divorce or separation will have on them. However, if there are no children or the children of the family have grown up, then pets can be treated like children and can become a significant part of the Court’s role in decision making.
The Courts have also noted that animals are often used to cause emotional distress to the other party in divorce proceedings and are used as a bargaining tool in respect of dividing the finances.
Considering the impact animals have on their humans emotionally, psychologically and physically, and vice versa, it is the belief amongst many that the welfare of the animal and the impact this has on their humans should be considered under UK Law to a greater extent.
The team at Family Law Partners’ main aim is to resolve disputes without involving the court. Our team also includes Mediators, Collaborative Lawyers and an Arbitrator. If you are involved in a dispute as to who will keep the pet after a divorce or separation, please get in touch with our specialist team to discuss your situation.