We are a nation of pet lovers, so it comes as no surprise that pets can be one of the most hotly contested aspects in a settlement negotiation when two people decide to divorce or separate...
Matters can get very, erm, hairy (or furry?) when two people split and they share a pet together. So how do you determine who should get ownership once you have gone your separate ways?
Obviously, the ideal option doesn’t require legal action. For example, you might take a ‘shared care’ approach, which might look something like a pet dog being regularly taken for walks by the party with whom the pet no longer lives. A good reason to remain on friendly terms is that your ex can provide free pet-care whilst you are on holiday…
But if reaching an agreement together does not feel that it is within the realm of possibility, then it is worth being aware of where the law lies. In legal terms, the position is quite clear: a pet is classed as a chattel, i.e. an item of personal property such as an item of furniture or jewellery. This means that whoever bought the animal, and to whom it is registered, will keep it. The only exception is if there is clear evidence that the animal was subsequently gifted to the other party.
Since recent research estimates that one in four UK divorces now involve a dispute over a much-loved animal, the Law Society has got involved, suggesting couples enter into what is known as a pet-nuptial agreement, aka a ‘petnup’ can be very beneficial. This is the same thing as a prenuptial or separation agreement, but specifically dealing with a pet.
Gabrielle Read-Thomas, a solicitor in Stowe Family Law’s Altrincham Office, says a ‘petnup’ can be hugely beneficial in avoiding heartbreak down the line, not to mention costly legal proceedings, so it is certainly worth considering entering into an agreement to resolve what will happen to the pet in the event of separation. Examples of what a ‘petnup’ can consider include who the pet will live with, who will care for it, who will pay for the vet fees and other expenses. This agreement is essentially a contract, and on this basis, a court room would very likely uphold the terms of it.
If you don’t have a ‘petnup’ in place and can’t reach a decision as to who gets ownership, then mediation is the next best step, as it encourages open discussion with an unbiased trained mediator present. It provides an environment that allows people to be more honest about what is in the pet’s best interest, rather than battling it out in a courtroom where tempers are flaring. During mediation, you can reflect on what is in the animal’s best interests; for example if one of you goes to work all day and the animal is left alone, it might be fairer on him or her to live with the person who is around more.
If mediation doesn’t work and there is no ‘petnup’ in place, then a court could decide the issue. They will firstly look at who is the legal owner of the pet, you may therefore need to provide evidence of who bought it, who the registered keeper is, who pays for vet bills etc in support of your case. It is highly unusual to issue court proceedings on the basis of a pet only and more likely a pet would be considered by the courts as part of an overall financial settlement on divorce. If this is the only area of dispute, it’s unlikely to be cost-effective to issue court proceedings purely to resolve this issue.