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Divorce: Who Gets Custody of the Family Pet?

View profile for Danielle Dyer
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Divorce, by its very nature is a highly emotive and difficult time for couples which involves, for many, deciding upon arrangements for their children and how their assets are to be divided. But what should happen to the family pet upon divorce.

This has become a rather prevalent issue, with the media reporting on celebrity cases such as Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong’s battle over who was to have custody of their dog, and Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s battle over their two dogs. This issue is not exclusive to the celebrity world, with most households having a very much-loved pet, who is very much part of the family.  For this reason, this subject is fertile for dispute between parties upon divorce.

Legal Position

In the law of England and Wales pets are deemed to be chattels. This means, pets are considered and treated as property which is tangible, such as cars, jewellery, machinery and art.

Therefore, purchase and registration documents can hold quite some weight in determining a dispute as to who should keep the family pet. This alone may not be enough and will be considered alongside several other factors:

  1. Who is the primary carer of the pet?
  2. Who has paid financially for the pet’s food, vet bills etc, or how much as each party contributed towards these.
  3. Whether there is any nuptial agreement in place which addresses the pet (‘a Pet-Nup’).
  4. The parties respective financial positions
  5. Will the pet need any provision?

As with the parties’ financial assets, the courts must consider and apply the factors contained in Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act to the specific facts of the case in determining who should keep the family pet. For example, if one party is blind and the pet is a guide dog, the court is likely to determine the dog stay with the party who is registered blind.

What to do if there is a dispute

To assist with avoiding a potential dispute in the future it is recommended that you consider entering in to a ‘Pet-Nup’ to record your intentions on what will happen to your pet upon divorce. These are not legally binding, but can be very persuasive if done properly, should a dispute arise.

If there is no ‘Pet-Nup’ the parties should first consider if mediation would be appropriate to try and resolve the issue. Mediation tends to be less costly than litigation and helps parties to maintain a relationship, which in turn assists with an agreement being reached.

If this does not work, the ownership and arrangements for the pet can form part of the overall financial settlement on divorce.

Can I have contact with my pet after divorce?

If you are not the party who the pet is living with, unless the other party agrees to you having contact with the pet, you will not be able to obtain a contact arrangement order for the pet from the Court.

The courts do not get involved with contact arrangements for the family pet.

If you are considering divorce, or if you are currently going through a divorce and need advice please do not hesitate to contact our Family Law Department online online or at our Farnham office on 01252 733770.

This information is for guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking full legal advice on specific facts and circumstances.