An often overlooked but distressing area of divorce is what happens to the family pet. Many pet owners experience a strong bond with their animals and the thought of separation can cause much anxiety.
What is the position of the law when it comes to pets in a divorce settlement? In the UK, the law regards pets as matrimonial ‘chattels’. It means that, in essence, a pet is treated in the same manner as furniture, the family car, or other possessions, to be divided between the two parties. The court does not consider what is in the best interests of the animal, in the same way it does when deciding on children’s arrangements(although some federal courts in America are now starting to apply this concept).
The division of ‘chattels’ is generally regarded as a matter for the separating couple and not for the Court. However, it is not mandatory that pets must be allocated to one party – you could agree to shared access, perhaps having the animal on alternate weekends, for example.
The wellbeing of your pets should be your guiding principle in reaching an agreement. So, for example, if you have two dogs with a close bond, they should be kept together to minimise distress. Likewise, avoid splitting pets from any children if you can. Be realistic about the costs of looking after a pet and how it fits with living arrangements and working hours.
If you cannot agree
If you cannot come to a decision over family pets, your first step should be mediation. This means appointing an independent, professionally trained third party who can help with the negotiations, minimising both cost and conflict.
If you can reach an agreement in this manner, a list showing the division of chattels – including any pets – can be appended to a court order to make it legally binding.
If you cannot reach an agreement, you can make an application to the Small Claims Court (part of the County Court) to consider who is animal’s rightful owner. The Court will take a number of factors into account when making its decision, such as:
Who bought the animal?
Who is the principal carer for the animal?
If the animal is a registered pedigree, whose name is it registered in?
If the court decides the animal is jointly owned it can order shared ownership. This might mean that, for example, each party may have the dog for six months of the year.
Issues over animals can sometimes take over. It can be a very emotional issue and pet custody can come to symbolise all other frustrations in the separation.. In some cases, feuding couples have spent up to £25,000 on court battles over pets.
Couples who seek help via mediation can avoid issues escalating to such levels. Mediation gives everyone involved an opportunity to be heard and helps identify a constructive way forward. For further information on the Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution services offered by SM&B please call our Family & Children team.
Contact Jane McDonagh