By John Roberts, Partner and Director
We often like to say that ‘A dog is for life,’ however, in the event of a divorce, family law may have a different view on the fate of your fluffy friend.
Going through a divorce is difficult enough without the added heartache of delegating the ownership of a beloved family pet. Both parties may wish to keep the pet, but in the nature of separation, this most often isn’t viable.
In the event of separation, the division of matrimonial property should be shared fairly between the parties, with all assets and debts split equally. After years of refinement, there is now considerable certainty over how the sharing of money and property should be achieved, most commonly resulting in a 50/50 split. This becomes difficult when dealing with the family pet, as you can’t simply split the animal in half to fairly compensate both parties.
The question then becomes, who gets the pet after a divorce?
The Legality of a Pet
A pet often becomes a core element of a family, with as much significance within the family as a child would have. Children are treated as legal parties throughout a divorce, and disputes over child custody are usually resolved based on their best interests bearing in mind the child’s age, physical and mental needs, child-parent relationship etc. Pets, on the other hand, aren’t legal parties but instead are classed as property.
Under the law, a pet is classed as an animate or inanimate object that can be touched and moved but has no choice in who owns it. Other possessions that would come under these terms are cars, money and furniture. So yes, in the eyes of the law, your beloved family pet is on par with a wardrobe or sofa.
The Benefits of a Prenup
A prenuptial agreement (prenup) is an agreement made and signed before a marriage or civil partnership (known as a pre-registration agreement for civil partnerships). The agreement states which partner is responsible for certain assets or finances during the marriage or partnership and in the event of a divorce.
Prenups are much more common in the US and are legally binding in the UK, too, as long as they meet certain qualifying criteria. However, if the ownership of a pet is set out within the agreement, this is usually a strong factor when legally determining the outcome.
Who Gets the Pet?
Without a prenup to guide the decision, a variety of factors can affect who gets to keep the pet after a divorce. Since pets are viewed as objects, they conform to most of the usual property rules, meaning that the outcome will often boil down to how the pet originally became the property of the married couple.
If one partner already owned the pet prior to the marriage, then the sole owner is likely to reside with them. However, if the pet was a gift from one partner to the other, the recipient may gain full ownership. These rules are pretty cut and dry. However, there are a few situations where ownership status may be rethought.
Families with children may see a different outcome. If the children are closely attached to the pet (which they often are), then the partner who receives custody of them is likely also to receive ownership of the pet, as this is in the children’s best interest. As young children may be unsettled during a divorce, having the family pet around provides some normality and comfort.
For divorce settlements involving two pets, where each partner has legal ownership of one, the judge may rule for one partner to walk away with both pets. This will only occur if it is deemed that the pets should not live apart for practical purposes.
Emotion and Ownership
In divorce cases involving pets, the judge may allow both parties to express the importance of the pet to them and how much the pet loves them and appreciates their presence. Although the opportunity to express these feelings may arise, it’s important to note that affection and familiarity are not the sole grounds for claiming ownership.
A Chance to Compromise
There is an opportunity for both parties to reach a compromise, gaining shared ownership of the pet. Many divorced partners maintain shared custody of their children, so this isn’t an outlandish option for those with pets. This can be ideal if both partners want access to the pet post-divorce; however, it isn’t always easy to facilitate this wish effectively and civilly.
In messier divorces where both parties feel a lot of anger towards each other, it’s important to think realistically when pitching the idea of shared ownership.
It may seem perfect in theory, with one partner having the pet for a week and then swapping with the other for the next week. Still, if both parties are already struggling to communicate civilly, then it isn’t going to be easy to maintain this agreement.
Can you prepare for divorce with pets?
Choosing who keeps the pet after a domestic separation can often be one of the most difficult aspects of a divorce case, especially when partners have co-owned their pet for a significant time throughout their marriage. The business-like negotiation can turn cold and brutal at the mention of a pet, with neither party willing to give them up.
Nobody enters a marriage thinking they’ll get divorced. Therefore, it isn’t something many plans ahead for. Obtaining a prenup is one of the best ways to secure the responsibility of assets throughout and after the marriage, providing a means to problem-solve effectively in the unfortunate event of divorce. Without a prenup, both parties are left with the responsibility of delegating ownership at the time of divorce, which is easier said than done.
John Roberts is a Partner and Director of Austin Lafferty. John has been with the firm for almost 20 years, with experience in all areas of family law, including divorce and separation, adoption and contact.