We are increasingly being asked to become involved in disputes between parties when their relationship comes to an end, and they decide to go their separate ways but cannot agree on ownership of their joint pet (often a family dog).
I am sometimes instructed to draft orders dealing with shared care arrangements for pets to establish joint bank accounts to meet their income needs for example for dog walking, food, grooming and kennelling costs.
A few years ago, I was required to include in a financial order confirming the parties’ financial arrangements upon divorce, detailing clauses for the contact arrangements for the parties’ cat, identifying the primary carer and the access rights to him for years to come.
In English law, a pet is classed as a ‘chattel’ or a personal item such as a painting or furniture and can be dealt with by the court in the same way as any such item. In divorce, the court has very wide discretion to determine the financial claims between the parties and can make orders as to the future owner of the pet. This is not always the advice that clients want to hear.
If the parties have not been married or have not entered a civil partnership, the position is less flexible. And as with all property disputes between unmarried couples, the ownership of the pet will need to be determined by reference to the actual circumstances that exist. One of the first things to consider is who paid for the pet and who is the registered owner. Difficulties arise when one party may have purchased the pet but gifted it to the other party for Christmas, birthday or similar.
Like all issues relating to cohabiting couples, it is advisable to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement setting out the intentions of the parties regarding ownership of all property (including the property in which they reside). The agreement may include ownership of a pet and this would avoid expensive litigation further down the line if the relationship falls apart.
The breakdown of a marriage or other relationship is usually fraught with emotional upset whilst at the same time requiring the parties to make significant and far-reaching decisions regarding home ownership, family businesses and arrangements for children. All this places significant pressure on them at a time when they least feel able to make such decisions. Add to the mix a much-loved family pet and you will see how important it is to address the issue of ownership and long-term retention of the pet at the time of purchase to secure the position if the relationship does not endure.