“I'm taking the dog” - Pets and divorce in the UK

Laura Burrows, associate, Collyer Bristow, 07/03/2022

Most couples have an idea of how their finances and children matters might be looked at under family law, but how do disputes over the family pet get resolved and what is the law?

Currently, under family law, the UK treats your pets as personal property. This means that they are treated as chattels to be divided between the two parties, the same as your cars, handbags and kitchen utensils.

But how do you divide your pet? Dogs are often described as man’s best friend so it is no surprise that it is often a very emotional issue and high conflict can arise in separating couples at an already anxious time.

The first step is to speak with your partner and try and come to an agreement amicably. Celebrity couples such as Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux and Ant MacPartlin and his ex wife Lisa Armstrong were reported to have reached shared custody agreements for their dogs but practically shared care doesn’t always work. If you are unable to come to an agreement of ownership, shared care arrangements or even visitation rights then you could look at mediation. This means appointing an independent, professionally trained third party who can assist with negotiations. Any agreement can then be added to a court order.

These are the two most cost-effective options. If you are unable to find a solution you will need to instruct a family solicitor to negotiate, arbitrate or at the very last resort, issue court proceedings (as a single issue or as part of your divorce settlement).

The court may determine that this issue needs to be resolved between the parties but it does have the power to make orders. To determine ownership the family court will look at factors such as who bought the pet and who has maintained them financially. This will always be a shock for the party who has not financially contributed but has cared for them. The court will also look at who the pet is registered to.

Other factors a court could also consider is if a child of the family’s welfare may be impacted if the child is separated from a pet if it goes to live with the other parent. Although financially taking care of a pet can be minimal what if it is a valuable pet such as a racehorse or show dog? Provision for income needs could need to be looked at along with a potential value, which could affect division of the assets.

Proceedings can be extremely costly and pets could be used as weapons in settlement discussions if one party or both parties have a strong emotive bond with the family pet. To avoid conflicts in the future it could be sensible to include any pets in a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement or a “pet-nup”. It could be as detailed as including care arrangements and finances but could also be as simple as including a clause that if you cannot agree on separation you will attend mediation.

Is the law aimed at our companions changing? The family court may view animals as possessions but to most of us our pets are much more than that and often are an integral part of our family.

With a recent case in Spain taking a dog’s welfare into account when deciding custody and the UK’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill 2021 formally recognising animals such as dogs and cats as sentient beings (aware of their feelings and emotions in the same way humans do) with animals such as crabs, lobsters and octopuses to be added to the list, should pets have a greater status in family law?

Pets are deeply involved in family life and even more so following the recent pandemic, but will the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill 2021 be the start of change of treating pets as members of the family in the family court? It must be said the UK is behind in looking at pets and divorcing couples but will the legislation assist in resolving conflict or will it lead to a steep rise in litigation, costs and court time. Either way, as a nation of animal lovers it will be a significant change on determining pet ownership.

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