What happens to your pets on divorce?

Say hello to Monty, our family Cockerpoo.

He came into our lives as an 8 week old pup, 10 years ago. A fluffy ball of black with little white socks on a couple of his paws. On the way home from collecting him we joked that the front half was mine and the back half belonged to my husband but really, he is my husband’s dog.

What would happen if my husband and I decided to separate? Who would Monty live with? Would we be able to agree?

Of course, I’d like to think we’d be able to agree (without much difficulty) that he should spend time with both of us.  That’s all well and good, but you never know how you’ll feel in that moment, when reality kicks in, and what you’ll both want and say.

How do the court’s view pets and how might you resolve a dispute about pets if you are separating?

To put it bluntly (and I hear the gasps already) a pet is considered a chattel. Treated no differently to the hallway cabinet or cosy armchair. The Court adopts a fairly pragmatic and clinical approach if there is a dispute, which perhaps doesn’t recognise the importance of a pet within the family unit. Generally speaking, a pet will stay with the registered keeper, unless it was subsequently gifted to the other party. There is no consideration of their welfare or wishes and feelings, as there would be with children.  For many, this may feel unjust and unfair, as pets are treated very much as family members.

Putting myself in those shoes, that’s how I would feel.  My husband and I made the decision to get Monty together, we chose him from the litter and decided his name. These were all very much joint decisions and on the basis he belonged to us both, regardless of the fact my husband paid for him and is the registered keeper. We are emotionally invested in his care and would feel the loss if we couldn’t see him again.  I’d miss the enthusiastic ‘where have you been?!’ tail wag when I get home from the office, or the tap dancing around the kitchen in anticipation of a walk or at the smell of pancakes at the weekend.

What are your options and what do you need to consider?

If you find yourself in this situation and you aren’t able to sit down with your ex to agree about what should happen with family pets, then before you bring it to the court door alternatives such as mediation or arbitration should always be considered.   Some common points to have in mind are:

  • Is the pet going to live with one of you predominantly or will the time s/he spends with you be shared?
  • How will this work, practically speaking?
  • Who is responsible for the associated costs – insurance/vet bills/foot etc moving forward?
  • Do or will you both have appropriate properties to house them?
  • Will you be living sufficiently close for the transition to work smoothly?
  • Are the arrangements you are considering the best for the pet involved, what suits a dog won’t necessarily work with cat, for example

What are some of the other things to bear in mind?

  • Pets, like us, sense change and have emotional and behavioural reactions to change. They sense loss and abandonment.
  • Don’t use your pet as a pawn, either between you to score points or in some misjudged attempt to gain favour with your children. This will only fuel resentment and make it harder to talk about what’s everyone’s best interests and how to resolve the impasse
  • If you have children, bear in mind they too will be emotionally attached to family pets. They are also experiencing a great deal of change and emotional challenges, so be ready to try and agree interim arrangements so they don’t feel the loss of a pet. This may be particularly relevant if there is a decision to live separately whilst those longer term decisions are made

What are ‘pet-nups’ and should you get one?

The rise in disputes about pets has also given rise to the ‘pet nup’ a document setting out ownership and care arrangements for pets during and in the event of a breakdown in a relationship. They don’t have to be agreements in their own right, but can be incorporated into other agreements such as cohabitation agreements/pre & post nuptial agreements.  By the same token arrangements for pets post separation can also be put in writing for clarity and peace of mind.

Pet Food Industry reports that in 2022, 10m (34%) of households own a dog, 28% a cat and 6.9m (77%) of households with children, also own pets. These are large numbers and perhaps show why we are seeing a greater trend of pets becoming part of the issues to be decided by separating couples.

So for all the pets out there, have this in mind, and try and reach a solution between you that works for you all, pets included, and don’t leave the decision to a court.  You may not get a sympathetic ear or a pet-friendly Judge.

To discuss this further, contact us here or on enquiries@ne-familylaw.co.uk.