It’s National Pet Day on Sunday (11th April 2021), and Silk Family Law is raising awareness on how to minimise legal disputes over family pets on separation or divorce.

When couples separate and divorce, fights over family pets are far from unusual. Many people see their much-loved pooch (or kitty) as part of the family – investing huge emotional value in them – and want to ensure that they can “co-parent” their pet following divorce or separation. 

If the parties are struggling to agree financial matters, the family pet may be used as a bargaining tool by one of the parties. Should the couple be unable to agree matters and “dig their heels in” with finances over the issue of the family pet, it could lead to increased legal costs and possible a final hearing. If clients are unable to negotiate about who will take care of the family pet, they could attend mediation or arbitration to attempt to resolve the issue.

Pet status in UK law

Whilst courts in Alaska may treat dogs and other family pets more like children in divorce cases by considering the welfare of the animal, in the UK they are viewed in the same way as other chattels, such as household items and personal belongings after separation. UK law treats pets as property for the purposes of dividing possessions after breakup.

Sometimes the decision over who will take care of the family pet will come down to who purchased the animal, whether the animal was a gift or who has taken financial responsibility for the pet. I would also suggest thinking about who will be best placed to take care of the family pet looking at issues such as the parties working arrangements and other commitments, who is willing to take responsibility for daily exercise and the costs of pet insurance and vet bills.

Family legal cases involving pets

Few judges will want to get involved in a dispute over a dog. However, if ownership of a pet becomes a contentious issue, then a court may well step in and make a decision.  I have heard of cases where one party has “dog-napped” a pampered pooch and courts have intervened. A colleague once had to dog sit a canine companion at our office after a court ruled it must be returned to his client.

Where couples have several pets then you might imagine it would be easy to simply divide them up, but what if the animals pine for each other? This should be taken into account in discussions. A couple may decide to share custody of the family dog. Whilst this may work for the couple in the short term, as time goes on and the couple wish to move on with their lives, it can be difficult to remain in contact with your ex-partner.

How to avoid disputes over who gets the family pet on divorce

I would always encourage clients to negotiate with their ex about pet ownership and cherished personal belongings. But an easy way to avoid arguments is to have a pre- or post nuptial agreement in place, spelling out who has what if the marriage fails. A family law solicitor can assist in drafting a prenuptial agreement that covers family pets. Where unmarried couples are living together, I would advise the couple to have a cohabitation agreement drawn up. Otherwise, given that they have fewer rights in law, who gets the dog will simply be down to who paid for it. 

If you have any questions about separation, divorce, cohabitation, pet arrangements or dividing possessions after breakup in general, you can email Carly at carly.hope@silkfamilylaw.co.uk, or call her on 0191 4957189 or 07912 228906. You can follow Carly on Twitter at @CarlyHope17 and Silk at @silkfamilylaw.

Carly is pictured here with her Tibetan mastiff, Dalha.

Additional dog images courtesy of Charles Deluvio (pug) and Victor Grabarczyk (golden retriever) on Unsplash.