“A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”, but what happens in a divorce or separation?

We are a nation of pet lovers, but what happens to them if their human owners separate? Relationship breakdown is usually a stressful time for all parties involved. It can be made even more upsetting when considering what to do about ownership of your pet.

It is not uncommon to think of a pet as one of the family and the thought of losing them, on top of the emotional turmoil of a breakup, can be overwhelming.

According to the PDSA[i] 50% of UK adults own[ii] a pet. If 42% of marriages in England and Wales[iii] end in divorce, half of those breakups might include deciding who gets to keep the family pet. And this statistic ignores those couples that live with each other (and their beloved animal).

In law, a pet is classed as property, a possession and if there is a dispute about ownership, a court could decide on legal ownership, resulting in the return to or retention of the animal by its owner. However, a court will not have the power to order the legal owner to give access to the pet to the non-legal owner. Deciding factors include who bought the pet, who is the main carer, whose name is registered on the pet’s microchip and insurance and who it is registered with and pays for the vet.

Pets are often bought at great expense, especially if it’s a pedigree or fashionable cross-breed. But with a beloved animal, the cost is not the only thing invested. If it’s a dog for example, invariably this will mean giving time and attention to training and exercising as well as feeding and loving it. Sometimes pets represent the absence of children or are introduced into an already large human family. We can get very soppy and sentimental about our four legged friends.

If you are separating, you and your partner may need to consider carefully who gets to keep the dog or cat and if more than one, do you get one each? As with so many issues that arise in family law matters, there is rarely one answer and most solutions turn on the circumstances of the case and what pet you have.

If it’s a dog you could consider sharing custody. Consider what would work best with your respective work patterns and other family commitments. Is the dog a good traveller or is car-sickness a problem? Is where you or your ex now living suitable for having a pet to stay or if renting, is there a no pet policy? Ideally a dog needs a pack leader – someone who is their primary carer and who has the time and money to be able to care for them on their own.

If it’s a cat, they can be territorial, becoming more attached to the home and surrounding area they are used to. Moving can be unsettling enough for adults and children, but we rarely think of the impact it might have on our feline (and canine) friends. If one of the separating couple is staying in the property formerly shared, the right solution might be for the cat to stay put, too. If neither of the couple is staying in the same place, then who is best placed in their new accommodation to keep the cat? Cats can be left alone for longer than dogs. Other important considerations include location e.g. near a busy main road.

If you have more than one pet, the answer is not necessarily to have one each. The pets may have an attachment to each other as well as to their human family and separating pets can be traumatic, at a time that is already fraught with tension (which pets will pick up from their humans).

Court is not the place to resolve disputes over pets: it is an expensive remedy, just like it is usually the method of last resort when it comes to sorting out the division of the main assets such as the house, savings, pensions and other investments. Alternatives include mediation or the collaborative framework, assuming doing what you believe is the right thing for your beloved pet has not helped you reach the right solution already.

If you need further legal advice, please don’t hesitate to contact a member of the family team here at Hart Brown.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

[i] https://www.pdsa.org.uk/get-involved/our-campaigns/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report/uk-pet-populations-of-dogs-cats-and-rabbits

[ii] 24% of UK adults have a cat with an estimated population of 10.9 million pet cats and 26% of the UK adult population have a dog with an estimated population of 9.9 million pet dogs.

[iii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce

 

 

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Vanessa McMurtrie

Partner, Family

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then...

Partner, Family

Vanessa McMurtrie

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then worked for us on a part time consultancy basis while devoting more time to her family. During this period she was instrumental in implementing Hart Brown’s family department’s case management system and later, the quality system that led to the firm’s ISO 9001 accreditation.

In 2005 Vanessa returned to client work and joined Mackrell Turner Garrett where she stayed for ten years, before re-joining Hart Brown in 2015. Vanessa knows Woking and the surrounding area well and enhances the work covered at our Woking office as part of the family team.

Vanessa has been a Resolution member since 1991, committed to resolving disputes in a non-confrontational and constructive way. She has served on the Surrey Resolution committee since 2008. She is a Resolution accredited collaboratively trained lawyer and welcomes the opportunity to help separating couples adopt this process as an alternative to the more traditional options available.

Over the years, Vanessa has gained a wealth of experience in dealing with all the legal aspects of relationships coming to an end. She prides herself on being approachable and understanding as she helps her clients go through the legal process.

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