We are a nation of dog and cat lovers (it is estimated that 12 million UK households (46% of homes) have pets). In most homes, pets are often viewed as another member of the family, forming a vital part of the family unit.
So when a couple divorces or separates, what happens?
Best interests of the pet
In a divorce, the welfare of any children of the family is considered paramount and a decision is made on what is considered to be in the best interests for the child. The same consideration does not apply to pets, even if a couple looks upon an animal as “their baby”.
Judges will not normally look at the ‘welfare’ of the pet when deciding a divorce settlement.
Under English law, pets are seen as ‘chattels’ which means that they are considered to be personal property such as a piece of furniture, a car, a television or a laptop for example.
Andrew Stynes, Head of our Family Law Team says “Courts do not generally make decisions on chattels - they tend to urge the parties to agree the division of chattels between themselves. This is hard to believe for some people for whom pet ownership is a highly sensitive topic of the divorce."
It can be relatively straightforward to divide personal property when couples separate, but the issue of a pet is usually highly emotive and can lead to long, drawn out negotiations. The pet can become a bargaining chip, particularly if one person initially purchased the pet or spent more time looking after the pet. When both parties stand firm, this matter can often be tricky to resolve.
This can seem unfair, especially if one person is better placed to care for the pet moving forward. However, there is very little, if any, room for manoeuvre in unless the pet was given as a gift.
What if the pet has a financial value
There are some considerations for the Court when pet ownership becomes disputed and it may be necessary to take into account whether the pet has any financial value. Pedigrees or thoroughbred breeds can carry a value of hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
It must be remembered that the Court does have wide discretion when considering a settlement and different Judges may take a different stance. English courts have yet to adopt a standard procedure when dealing with disputes over pets.
Sharing responsibility and care of the pet after a divorce is rarely seen as practical or sensible.
However, this should not be disregarded. No court would ever become embroiled in a dispute over contact with a pet to the same extent as contact with a child. One party may have some sway if they take responsibility for the day to day care of the pet, but this argument is usually peripheral – legal ownership will prevail in the vast majority of cases.
Welfare-based approach to pet ownership?
Other legal systems have started to take a different approach in recent years towards pets. For example, Judges in America have heard expert witnesses regarding what is in the pet’s long term interest.
Andrew concludes “Some might say ‘Only in America’. Others feel so strongly about this that it is conceivable that the English legal system may follow suit, one day in the future. The best guidance on this topic is, if at all possible, to try to come to an agreement with your ex-partner what will happen with your pet, rather than leave it up to the Court.”
Our Family Team are happy to discuss any issues that this raises for you and we offer a free initial meeting or chat on the phone.
If you have any questions, you only have to ask us at Frettens. Please call 01202 499255 or 01425 610100 and Andrew or a member of the team will be happy to chat about your situation and your particular requirements.