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Who gets the pets in a divorce?

Who gets the pets in a divorce?

Peter Reynolds from Rowberry Morris Solicitors explains what options you have for your beloved pet if you and your partner decide to get a divorce

Statistics show that 5.4 million pets have been acquired in the UK since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But while, for some, their pets mitigated the impact of separation from loved ones and colleagues during lockdown, for many others their ownership will have hindered, not helped, their personal situation.

Divorce enquiries rocketed by 95 per cent during the pandemic, with many citing spending too much time together or financial pressures as the main reasons for their separation.

"For some, their pets mitigated the impact of isolation during lockdown, for others their ownership hindered their situation"

While this might not be surprising, it does throw up several complex legal considerations for those involved, and it's not just the division of money or childcare solutions that are causing the main headaches. It’s the tricky matter of what happens to the pets? 

But what are the facts, and where do you stand legally when it comes to deciding who gets the dog in a divorce?

What does the law say?

Girl with dog while parents argue in backgroundCredit: Prostock-Studio

When going through a divorce, there are three main areas to consider—the legal dissolution of the marriage, living arrangements for dependent children, and financial arrangements for both parties and any children involved. However, it's important to note that pets are not treated the same as children under English and Welsh Law.

While many people assume their furry friends will be considered similarly, pets are actually viewed as assets or possessions. This means that any disputes regarding pets will be handled like disagreements over property, without the consideration of emotional attachments.

How do you avoid going to court?

As pet ownership can become an emotionally charged issue in divorce cases, it is crucial to prioritise reaching a mutually agreeable arrangement regarding ownership.

Mediation, with the help of an impartial third-party, may be necessary for resolving emotive matters like pet ownership. To determine the best living situation for the pet, factors such as outdoor space, property size, and work schedules should be considered alongside the ability to finance their ongoing care.

"Factors such as outdoor space, property size, work schedules and financing your pet's care should be considered"

If mediation fails, arbitration is another effective route that avoids costly court proceedings. Surrendering a pet to a trusted family member or friend may be a last-resort solution if an agreement cannot be reached.

Remember that selling or giving away a pet without the other party’s consent is not advisable, as it can lead to theft charges if the other party is the legal owner.

Prenuptials for pets?

Cat and sad womanCredit: CandyRetriever

When it comes to relationships, nobody plans for a breakup. However, it's important to prepare for all possible scenarios while things are amicable. With 42 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, it's crucial to think about what will happen to pets that outlive the relationship.

According to the PDSA, a dog could cost up to £30,800 in its lifetime, while a cat could cost around £12,000. That's why creating a prenuptial or cohabitation agreement for pets is a wise choice that can save time and reduce stress later on.

With a pet prenup, you can determine who will take care of the animals after a separation, decide on potential contact arrangements, choose preferred veterinary support, and set a maximum amount for insurance, emergency care, and end-of-life expenses.

Most importantly, a pet prenup can prevent one spouse from using the pet as leverage during a divorce and protect against any attempts to withhold access or sell the pet out of spite.

What happens if the dispute reaches Court?

Sad woman on sofa with a dogCredit: Dima Berlin

The Family Court holds the power to establish legal ownership of a pet, but typically handles this issue only after resolving all other matters. The process can be lengthy and may result in a new status quo, potentially prejudicing one party over the other. The Court cannot determine ownership if the pet has been sold in the interim, and an injunction to prevent such a sale is only successful if the pet holds financial value.

To determine the legal ownership of a pet, the Family Court considers several crucial factors, including who purchased the pet, the primary caregiver, microchip or insurance papers, andveterinary registration. Unfortunately, this can be challenging to confirm, especially if the purchaser and caregiver are not the same person or a joint account funded the pet's costs.

When ownership is difficult to establish, the Court evaluates who invested more time caring for the pet throughout the marriage and who can continue doing so in the future. Both parties must provide evidence of their personal involvement and demonstrate how they plan to care for the pet post-marriage.

"The Family Court holds the power to establish legal ownership of a pet, but handles this issue after resolving all other matters"

The Court will also consider who has the most appropriate accommodation, financial resources, and ability to provide adequate care to the pet, seeking to find the most thoughtful and just solution for all concerned.

As per legal provisions, if a court declares the rightful ownership of a pet, it has the authority to order the animal's return to its true owner and compensate for any harm caused by its wrongful retention.

However, it's advisable to avoid taking such cases to court because they can be financially and emotionally straining. The smart thing to do is to opt for a prenuptial agreement that clearly outlines the arrangements for pet custody and care, before any potential legal dispute arises.

Having open and honest conversations with your partner, and seeking legal assistance if required, can go a long way in protecting your pet's best interests in any eventuality.

Banner credit: absolutimages

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