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Divorcing Dobbin – Pets and Family Break-up

As a nation of pet lovers, many of us can't imagine our lives without our adored cat, dog, horse or small furry - and the thought of having to part with them is utterly heart breaking.

And of course, this emotive issue can cause real difficulties when finalising a divorce or separation.

Often, the separating couple will have worked so hard to consciously uncouple their finances, agree terms in relation to their children and sort out other logistics but then, almost as an afterthought, it hits them: Who gets to keep Spot or Tiddles?

Suddenly having to sort out pet custody details can put the 'main' areas of agreement at risk so it is worth thinking about them early on, to ensure that they're discussed alongside the other issues in a family split.

The Law

The law in England and Wales when it comes to pets can seem a little cold and unemotional - they are regarded as 'property' or to use an old fashioned expression 'chattels', just like your kitchen table or 42 inch flat screen TV. The courts, if asked, will approach ownership of your pets in much the same way.

It may happen in films, but the idea of a judge standing in the court's car park refereeing an emotional tug of war contest between a former couple, with Gnasher sitting in the middle, looking one way and then the other before deciding who smells best is, unfortunately, a myth.

There's no point having doggie treats in your pocket when attending court to litigate such matters.

However, having reviewed some previously decided cases a number of themes, questions or issues begin to emerge and should be considered when litigating such matters:

  • Which party put the majority of time and effort into caring for the pet?
  • If the parties operated relatively separate finances, who paid for the food and bills?
  • If there are children of the marriage, where will the children reside and what is their attachment to the pet?
  • Is the animal connected to the work of one of the parties?
  • Does either party require or gain therapeutic benefits from the animal?

Puppy Pre-Nups

Pre-nuptial (or even post-nuptial) agreements can be a good way of pre-determining who 'owns' a particular pet, or any item of property for that matter.

For example, a person who owns a valuable piece of jewellery of great sentimental value prior to forming a relationship may specifically single it out in a pre-nup agreement as a way of ring fencing 'ownership'. Animals are no different and can be singled out in exactly the same way.

At the risk of sounding unromantic, it is a fact of life that some marriages and some civil partnerships won't last and when a person enters into a more formal relationship, already having a pet, spelling things out clearly in a pre-nuptial agreement may be the most sensible, grown up way of deciding important issues before all the difficult emotions that come with a divorce kick in.

For more information on pre-nuptial agreements, please see our Wards Solicitors legal guide on the subject.

Ongoing costs of care

As all animal owners will know, pets can be expensive. Vets bills, food, kennelling or stabling, cat sitters, grooming, farriers, the list goes on and on.

Post-split, someone will have to pay for the animal and sometimes, this might not be the person who takes ownership of the animal.

The most expensive animal that we ordinarily have to deal with in a familial context is a horse. More often than not the horse will be owned by, or be the pet of, the children of the relationship. This complicates matters somewhat because the cost of maintaining that animal may be added to the cost of maintaining the children.

As an example, the children live with Dad and the horse comes with the children. If the general direction of maintenance payments flow from Mum to Dad (in our example), alongside school fees, uniforms, food and clothing, the cost of Dobbin may also be included in such a settlement or court decision.

Final Thoughts

Divorces are difficult enough but when you add in children and animals, the emotional interplay can complicate what should be a straight forward settlement between the parties.

The Family and Divorce Team here at Wards Solicitors, will always try to avoid court litigation and all the costs associated with it. As a fresh pair of eyes, we are able to take some of the heat and emotion out of the situation to allow the divorcing couple to talk and to resolve the issues without a fight in court.

However, if that is unsuccessful, having the knowledge of the court process and the way courts will approach ownership of pets will help a couple prepare for what is to come.

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