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Common questions on divorce: Who gets to keep the dog?

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Rebecca Patience, a solicitor in Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team, explains how pet ownership is considered by the courts in England and Wales during divorce proceedings.

Since the start of the pandemic, it has been reported by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, that 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired a pet. With such an increased level of pet ownership in the UK, it is inevitable that disputes relating to pet ownership during divorce proceedings will be on the rise.

While many couples will see their four-legged friend as a member of their family, the law in England and Wales regards pets as chattels and as such they are treated as possessions within divorce proceedings. There is no specific provision within the law to assist separating couples to decide who gets to keep the family pet after the conclusion of divorce proceedings.

What to do if you are struggling to agree who should keep the family pet

The best way to resolve disputes relating to pets after separation is to try and engage in negotiations directly with your ex-partner to resolve matters. This is a cost-effective way to resolve disputes that arise, but it can often be difficult to resolve matters in this way, given that there are frequently strained lines of communication between separating couples.

One consideration is to try engaging in the mediation process in an effort to resolve the dispute. The benefit of engaging in the mediation process is that an independent third party will facilitate the discussion and try to assist in the resolution of matters. Resolving matters in mediation is often a cheaper alternative to referring matters to Court for determination.

If you are unable to resolve matters via negotiations or via mediation you may consider instructing a solicitor to assist. Solicitors can engage in negotiation via correspondence to look to bring resolution to the dispute.

Ultimately, if agreement cannot be achieved via negotiation, the court does have the authority to make a decision as to who will retain a family pet after divorce, however, the court does take a very dim view when asked to make decisions about such matters given the limited resources available to the court.

A referral to court should be reserved as a last resort. If the only issue in dispute is that of pet ownership, then it will unlikely be proportionate to issue court proceedings to resolve this discrete point, given the significant time and expense that is often incurred in bringing matters to court.

If the only issue in dispute is who is to retain the family pet, then parties could consider engaging in arbitration to resolve this discrete issue.

How the courts have dealt with cases regarding pet ownership

There have been a limited number of cases where the court has been asked to consider the ownership of animals as part of the settlement of financial matters between divorcing couples.

A case in 2008 dealt with the issues of payment of maintenance by the Husband to the Wife, at a level sufficient to enable her to keep her pet horses. On the facts of this case, it was considered reasonable for the Wife to retain the animals and for the Husband to pay spousal maintenance at such a level to enable her to keep her horses.

A case in 2011 addressed a dispute relating to the ownership of a family dog. The judge was not impressed to be asked to make such a decision but decided that the pet should be retained by the Husband, as the judge felt that on the facts of the case that it had been illustrated that the Husband had been the primary carer of the dog.

In a case before the Court 2018, which involved a dispute as to which party would retain the family dogs, the judge stated that each party should retain one dog. The judge noted that if the parties wished to argue over their access to the other dog, this was an issue that would have to resolved outside of the court forum, with mediation or arbitration proposed.

When making a decision as to who should keep a family pet the court will consider things such as who funded the purchase of the pet, who is the registered legal owner of the pet and who pays for the pet insurance, pet food, pet medical costs. If there is dispute as to who should retain a family pet, or dispute as to any matters relating to property and assets after separation, it is recommended that advice be obtained from a family law expert to ensure resolution can be achieved in a swift and pragmatic fashion.

When an agreement has been reached as to who will retain the family pet, it is important that there is a legal record of what has been agreed. In the UK divorcing couples are advised to resolve all matters relating to their finances and possession by obtaining a Consent Order. This is a legally binding agreement that records the settlement terms. It is recommended that any agreement reached in respect of ownership of the family pet(s) Should be detailed in the Consent Order, if pet ownership has been a specific issue in dispute.

If the ownership of a family pet poses to be a potential issue during your divorce proceedings or if you have any other queries on matters relating to property and assets after separation, please contact Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team on 01772 258321.


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