A common question that often gets overlooked in the process of divorce negotiations is: “Who gets to keep the dog?” (Or any other pet, of course!)
Under UK family law, pets are considered to be included in a couple’s property and possessions, which means the ‘custody’ of any animals is not treated the same way as the process used for children. But, as anyone who has a beloved family pet knows, this kind of decision has the potential to be extremely emotional and the source of much negotiation between you and your ex.
Losing contact with a pet can be devastating, particularly when you may already be feeling vulnerable while working through a divorce, and many couples view their animals as surrogate children. The best way to resolve these kinds of disputes is with a mediator, or by working collaboratively with your solicitors to come to a reasonable agreement, since the court may not be able to take into account the full emotional impact of the decision. There are several options here:
- One person claims sole ownership for the pet/s
- The couple agree to share custody of the pet/s
- The couple share the cost of maintenance for the pet/s, regardless of whether you have sole ownership or shared custody
The first step in deciding what happens to any family pets in the case of separation should be the animal’s wellbeing. For example, if you have horses, or a dog that requires a lot of exercise, and you are moving to a small inner-city flat while your ex has a country estate, it obviously makes better sense for them to become the main owner. Your living arrangements, working schedule, and financial situation will all impact on the health and wellbeing of any animals and though it may be a difficult decision to make, it may well be that it’s just not practical for you to keep your pet. However, there are plenty of cases in which separated couples continue to share custody and maintenance of their beloved animals – in some instances their mutual love for their pets actually helps them to stay friends after divorce!
The custody and ownership of any pets may well be a sensitive issue for separating couples who have formed a bond with their animals and jointly invested in their future. Obviously, a pet is not the same as a piece of furniture, even though it comes under the same heading of ‘property’ in a divorce case. Technically, a pet is deemed as a ‘chattel’ or personal effect and the court is not able to consider negotiations for visitation rights or maintenance. It’s up to you, therefore, to come to some sort of arrangement between yourselves rather than taking your issues to court and prolonging proceedings unnecessarily and expensively.
In a positive development, a recent change to Alaskan law means that pets will now be treated more like children when it comes to separation, and the courts will ‘take into consideration the well-being of the animal’ when deciding on ownership. Knowing how much our clients love their pets, and how difficult it can be to find a fair outcome for such an emotive decision, we hope that the UK follows suit in the future.
To speak to a friendly family lawyer about any aspect of separation or divorce, mediation, arbitration, or collaborative family law, visit www.franceslindsay.co.uk. (We are loving pet-owners, too!)divorce, family law, separation