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Pets and divorce: who keeps the dog?

Monday March 27, 2023


Going through a divorce or separation of any kind can be challenging. From household items to the family car, things can get complicated when looking to divide assets. But what happens if you have a pet? 

Here, CWC breaks down the details when considering taking custody of your four-legged friend, including what you need to consider and why it’s important to hire a family lawyer.

Are pets covered in divorce law?

According to UK law, animals are treated in a similar way as material possessions. Their welfare is not the same as it would be for a child and the law, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect the status that a lot of pets hold in family life. 

Pets are often considered treasured members of the family, no matter if it’s a dog or a rabbit, and their long-term well-being should always be a priority when it comes to their future.

So, who keeps the pet?

When a couple has gone their separate ways, seeking custody of beloved animals can be a source of conflict as even though two people have fallen out of love, the unconditional love for a pet lives on.

Often, the thought of leaving a pet can feel like leaving a family member and if often difficult to come to terms with. As a result, many would go to extreme lengths to keep their pets.

The most important thing to consider is the welfare of your pet and therefore who can give the animal a better quality of life. It might also be worth thinking about who will have the best space and time to care for your pet. 

Can you share custody of the pet?

Sharing a pet is a common solution given both parties have an emotional connection to the animal however it’s worth considering this may not be in the pet’s best interest.

This may cause stress and confusion to the pet but must depend on the animal and its personality, as some may adapt better than others. Additionally, the type of animal in question is also important.

What power does the court have?

If there is enough evidence in favour of one person, the court will be able to grant sole ownership of the animal.

In most cases, this is the individual who paid for the family dog, cat, or other animal is likely to retain ownership. This includes whoever pays for the pet insurance, is registered with the vet, is the primary carer for the animal, is registered on the microchip and buys the pet food and other supplies.

For this to happen, you would need to provide evidence of ownership, financial responsibility and primary care of the animal. If there is no clear owner of the family pet, the court may decide on joint ownership. In this instance, a joint custody agreement can be decided privately between the parties involved, or a court order can be made.

The court also has the power to decide whether the pet should be sold if it’s found that neither party is capable. As a result, it is in the best interest to solve negotiations outside of court.

How can I reduce conflict when considering pets?

If a dispute arises with your partner regarding your pet, it is wise to try and negotiate a fair arrangement directly however, in some cases, this may not come to any conclusion. 

In this case, it might be time to consider mediation. By enlisting the help of a third party, you may be able to reach an agreement much quicker which is of benefit to you and your pet.

When should I take legal action?

If meditation and direct negotiations won’t work or are completely out of the question, it’s time to instruct a solicitor who will be able to draft a formal letter on your behalf.

If an agreement still can’t be reached, it might be worth looking into arbitration or court proceedings to produce a binding outcome. Court proceedings may only be considered if all other avenues have been exhausted and may end up costly. 

Does the UK have an outdated approach?

When looking at UK divorce law, it is somewhat outdated when considering pets. Animals have significant rights as living beings, however, it’s very difficult to change the divorce law that this country currently has.

There is a debate that if you did change this law, you would have to see which animals would benefit from these adjustments. Should the same rights that are awarded to a dog or cat, also be given to a goldfish?

It has been the case in the past where battles have gone on for so long that the animal passed away before a resolution could be found. Often this is down to the difficulties navigating UK law without the help of experts.

Getting help from Curtis Whiteford Crocker

At Curtis Whiteford Crocker, we provide help to people in Devon looking to divorce their partner. From filing divorce papers to mediation and separation agreements, we are able to advise on a range of matrimonial issues and help you ensure the best outcome for you. Our friendly team is here to help you during this difficult time and can advise you on your options if you feel as though divorce is unaffordable.

Get in touch with one of our offices in Plymouth, Torpoint, Tavistock or Plymstock and let us help you look ahead to your next chapter.

A divorce or any kind of separation can be challenging. From disputes over household tech to the family car, things can get complicated. But what if you have a pet?