Pet arrangements after a separation
There are 41 million pet-owning families in Britain, with a substantial increase in the number of families purchasing pets during the pandemic, with the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association reporting that a total of 3.2 million households bought an animal during this time. These pets, understandably, become a very important member of the family, but if their owners decide to separate, there can often be disputes as to who gets to keep them.
It's important to organise a suitable arrangement for ownership of the family pet after a separation to avoid emotional distress for the owners, any children involved and the animal itself.
Pets in separation proceedings
There are options available to pet owners who are struggling to come to an arrangement after their separation, such as attending mediation to agree a care schedule for the pet. Or if the owners do not wish to share ownership of the pet, ownership can sometimes be discussed during financial proceedings.
In the family court, pets are considered to be a chattel (chattels are the properties of their owner, much like a television or sofa). In divorce proceedings, properties of value are added to the “matrimonial pot” which can then be liquidated and divided equally or shared between parties. If the pet is more valuable (maybe the dog is pedigree, or the family owns a certain type of horse) a household inventory can be prepared noting items that both parties would like to retain and providing their reasons for wanting to do so. The court will then decide which party should retain ownership of each item, including the family pet.
The connection built between a family and their pet means the pet will often have more meaning to its owners than a sofa, but the law in England and Wales does not yet recognise animals as anything other than a chattel. It is a moot point as to whether animals should be treated in the same way as children in the family courts, and Pet Arrangement Orders should be more commonly used to create shared care agreements for pets. However, this has not yet been implemented in practice.
In most cases it would be beneficial for parties to attempt to come to an agreement outside of court, as the family court system is so overwhelmed, judges may not be overly enthused if a pet arrangement dispute was brought before them. If the decision was left to the Court, some factors that could be considered are the legal owner of the animal, whether the pet was a gift and who was the primary carer of the animal.
An alternative option for divorcing pet owners to consider is to attend mediation, where a neutral third party will assist the separating couple in preparing care agreements between themselves. If mediation does not prove to be successful, parties have the option of instructing solicitors to work out an arrangement on their behalf. It is useful to note that mediation is also an option for non-married per owners going through a separation.
There is a pre-emptive approach that can be taken by parties when they first bring an animal into their family. This is known as a “pet-nup”, which is a pet care arrangement based on the concept of a pre-nuptial agreement, so that if the pet owners separate there is already an agreement in place. As with traditional prenuptial agreements, “pet-nups” are not legally binding, but if the matter does end up as an issue before the court, having a pre-agreed arrangement that was freely entered into and properly drafted will have some influence over the outcome.
Welfare of the family pet during separation
When a marriage breaks down, emotions will run high and the stress of dividing assets for both parties to start new lives as they separate from one another will undoubtedly be difficult. It might be easy to forget that a family pet will also feel unrest if their life is changed suddenly and dramatically. An important consideration when attending mediation or using solicitors to decide an arrangement, might be the difficulty their pet would face moving to a new environment or being separated from another family pet.
Whoever the family pet ends up with, these options are available for separating pet owners to ensure the best possible outcome for themselves and their companion.
If you need advice on any divorce-related matter or have any other family law-related queries, please contact us and we will be happy to discuss your circumstances in more detail.