1 April – 3 May 2021 celebrates National Pet Month, raising awareness of responsible pet ownership. Read more via National Pet Month here.
Who gets the pets on divorce?
For some divorcing couples, the future arrangements for the family pets can be an important aspect of their separation, and a particularly emotive issue. According to a 2019/20 survey, around 41% of UK households own a pet, with dogs and cats being the most popular animals – which means this will be an issue for many separating families.
The family team at Hunters have dealt with a wide range of cases involving pets, from setting out the arrangements for the shared care of a dog between England and Spain to making an application for a client to retain their pet cat.
In law, it is established that pets are chattels i.e. an item that people own, even though they might feel like members of the family. The court in financial remedy proceedings on divorce has the power to make orders about how chattels – included pets – are shared between separating spouses.
It is, however, best to try and resolve the issue of pets outside of court proceedings if at all possible, as costs can mount up and judges will generally prefer for the parties to come to agreement on decisions relating to chattels. There are a number of ways to seek to reach agreement if discussions directly between the parties involved are unsuccessful:
- Mediation – a process by which both parties attend meetings with a mediator, a neutral third party to try to reach an agreement.
- Solicitor led negotiation – solicitors for both parties will try to reach an agreement through correspondence and possibly a round table meeting (a meeting with both parties and their solicitors).
- Arbitration – an impartial arbitrator is appointed to make a binding decision about the issue. With arbitration, the parties are able to ask the arbitrator to deal solely with the issue of the pets, although they can of course engage in arbitration regarding the finances as whole if they wish to do so.
Reaching a negotiated agreement is best, as it gives you both the freedom to agree on the finer details that a judge may not be prepared to/be able to order. The key question will of course be who the pet(s) should live with. If there is to be shared care of the pet, it is worth setting out what the exact pattern of handovers is supposed to be e.g. week on, week off or a bi-weekly arrangement. If the agreement is to be effective, the arrangement will need to be one that the pet can adjust to and manage, so it is important to take that into account.
You may also want to consider who should meet the cost of insuring the pet and of any medical costs not covered by insurance, especially if it will be sharing its time between you. Some separated couples might also want to stipulate that they should consult each other about significant medical decisions, including whether the pet should be put down if it becomes very unwell.
Recent media reports have talked about the rise of “petnups” – where a couple agree in advance what will happen to a pet in the event that they separate. This is something we can assist with and would recommend incorporating it as part of a wider nuptial agreement addressing issues arising on separation more broadly.
If you have any questions about the arrangements for pets on divorce or other aspects of family law, please contact Eri Horrocks on 020 7412 0050 or Eri.Horrocks@hunterslaw.com.