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Often, the most emotional issues are the arrangements for any children. However, many separating couples equally love their pets and they are considered to be an integral part of the family, so their welfare is an important matter to factor in to any separation proceedings.
According to a 2020/2021 survey by Statista, 59% of households in the UK have pets; an 18% increase on the previous year due to the pandemic and people spending more time at home. It is therefore hardly surprising that when a couple decides to divorce, conflicts can arise over the family pets.
In England and Wales, there is no specific law regarding ownership of pets following divorce. However, pets are classed as ‘chattels’. Chattel is a legal term that refers to personal items such as contents of the home, cars and jewellery, but excludes financial assets such as the matrimonial property. Whilst this is the legal stance, for many families, pets are not just material goods; they are often at the heart of the home and are valued family members.
The court will initially consider who is the owner of the pet based on the considerations set out under Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
Proof of ownership can be established through registration, veterinary records, microchipping, tags, adoption or purchase records, or a pet agreement. Consideration is also given as to who is the primary carer of the pet, for example who walks the dog and who contributes financially towards food and veterinary bills. The parties’ financial positions, work commitments and other responsibilities will also be considered.
Whilst pets are important to many separating couples, the unfortunate reality is that pursuing an application through court is unlikely to be proportionate as it can be very expensive and time consuming. More suitable ways to deal with the future arrangements for the family pet are by mutual agreement, mediation or arbitration.
In 2020, it was reported that celebrity, Ant McPartlin and his former spouse reached an agreement to share the care of their dog. This included time for the non-resident party to take the dog for a walk and have the dog to stay for weekends.
Whilst pet ownership on separation is becoming an increasingly common issue, there is very limited case law in relation to pets following divorce, some of which includes:
In order to avoid a dispute over a much-loved pet, it would be sensible to consider entering into a ‘pet-nup’. This is an agreement between the parties setting out ownership and the arrangements for a pet both during a marriage and in the event of a divorce or separation.
A ‘pet-nup’, similar to a pre-nup, is not automatically legally binding, but holds weight if a dispute arises following separation.
Wherever possible, it is most practical to agree up-front who will keep the pet so that stressful and expensive court proceedings can be avoided.
Should you require assistance regarding separation difficulties involving your family pet, please contact our Family & Matrimonial department on 01332 226 122 or fill in the form below.
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