It's me or the dog what happens to pets on divorce?

1st February 2017 Family Law

There are many things a couple can argue over when they split up, and disputes over who gets to keep what are hardly uncommon. Aside from any disputes over arrangements for children, the question of what should happen to the family pet is often one of the most emotive issues for separating couples.

A number of celebrity spats over who gets 'custody' of jointly-owned pets have made headlines over recent years, including the recently-finalised settlement of Jonny Depp and Amber Heard, in which it has been agreed that Heard will maintain custody of their dogs, Pistol and Boo. A recent amendment to divorce statutes in Alaska has also made the news as it requires courts presiding over divorce proceedings to specifically take 'into consideration the well-being of the animal' and explicitly gives judges the power to order joint-custody arrangements of family pets.

Clearly, people have strong emotional ties to their pets and it is understandable that they wish to maintain these at a time when their life is changing massively. However, the law in England and Wales treats the ownership of pets as it does any other chattels relevant to proceedings, which can seem at odds to separating couples' concerns.

When making decisions as to what should happen to family pets, the Court will not consider the welfare of the animal in the way that they would any children in Children Act proceedings. Instead, the pet is treated in line with other matrimonial property. Where the animal has a significant financial value, such as in the case of pedigree dogs or horses, the court may take this value into account when dividing the couple's assets.

Despite this, arguments concerning the parties' lifestyles and day-to-day responsibility for the care of the animal may be advanced in deciding who should keep the pet going forward. It may also prove necessary to factor in the costs of caring for the animals when calculating parties' income needs, and this could therefore form part of any spousal maintenance payments ordered.

Whilst joint ownership arrangements, with the pet spending time with each party in turn, are theoretically possible, they will not be suitable for every animal. There is currently no power for the court to make an order ensuring contact for the party who does not keep the pet.

To avoid difficulties in deciding what should happen to a pet upon the breakdown of a relationship, some couples choose to record their intentions in a cohabitation or pre-nuptial agreement. These agreements can provide clarity as to what should happen to pets should the relationship come to an end.

As a nation of animal lovers, what will happen to the family pet will often be at the forefront of separating couples' minds. It is therefore worth couples considering what will happen to their furry friend in the event that their pet should outlive their relationship.

To discuss an issue raised in this blog, or other divorce questions, please do not hesitate to contact myself or the family law team using the form to the right.


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David Pickering is a Partner and Head of Department located in Manchesterin our Family department

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