What happens when pets are caught in the middle of relationship breakdown?

Megan Bennie

Solicitor

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June 20, 2022

Categories Family Law

“I’m leaving…and Rover’s coming with me!”

As a specialist family lawyer, I see families of all shapes and sizes. And it’s very clear that for lots of them, their pet is not just an animal, it’s a fully-fledged member of the family, a trusted companion and sometimes even a therapist rolled into one. So it’s no surprise that more and more clients are asking me for advice about what happens to their furry friend when they encounter relationship problems with a partner.

Brits are a nation of animal lovers, and this has never been clearer than during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 11% of UK households having taken on a new pet during that period alone. The results of a recent survey by the Battersea animal charity (of Dog’s Home fame) will come as no surprise to any pet lover: 75% of those surveyed described themselves as being ‘rescued’ by their pet during the difficult days of national lockdown.

Relationship breakdowns can present equally challenging circumstances so it’s no wonder that pets can be a particularly emotive topic for my clients. Unfortunately, a pet’s treatment by the law hasn’t kept up with the way they are viewed by us.

Essentially, the law treats pets as possessions, meaning in a divorce case, your beloved pet would, in theory, be treated by a Court as no different from your favourite armchair. I think virtually any pet owner would disagree wholeheartedly with this approach!

I say in theory because the Courts rarely deal with cases regarding pets for a variety of reasons. For the most part, cases involving family pets do not come before the Courts because the costs involved in bringing such a case would be disproportionately expensive. In the rare cases that are heard by a Court, the Judge will quite often decline to deal with the issue and focus on the assets that are, in pounds and pence at least, more valuable.

When the Court does deal with animal matters, it might surprise you to learn that the welfare of the pet in question is not one of the factors under consideration. The focus is generally on who is the legal owner either in terms of having purchased the pet, or to whom it is registered. In many cases the legal owner is unclear, with who paid what and when having been forgotten as the years have passed, or it may have been a joint purchase with no single legal owner. In that case, who cares for the pet day to day can be regarded as a decisive factor (as per RK v RK (2011)).

Welfare of minor children is one of the factors the Court is explicitly directed to consider in settling financial matters (as per Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973) and this can be a useful guide in pet disputes. Where both children and pets are involved, it may be the natural solution for the family pet to remain in the care of whoever the children spend most time with. This could minimise further disruption to the children and provide them with some much-needed continuity. Every family is different though and this will not always be the most appropriate solution.

Where the Court does make a decision about pet ‘custody’, or where the issue is not in dispute but does form part of the facts of the case, it can order financial provision for the pet. The costs of pet care can be built into a financial settlement where there is money to allow this to happen (as per S v S (2008)). The needs of the humans involved will generally come first, with pet ownership being seen in many cases as a luxury.

For most people though, cases are settled away from the Courtroom so they must consider other means to decide where and with whom their four-legged friend will live and how their needs will be met.

Generally, pet matters are settled through direct discussions between the adults involved, with the wishes of any children in the family being a consideration too. In some cases it might be obvious that a pet would prefer to remain with one of the parties involved, or that their circumstances are better suited to remaining with one or the other. If this is the case then ‘visitation’ can be agreed or a pet might travel with the children for some of the time they spend away from their main base. The latter isn’t an option that will suit every pet though, and it lends itself to a more mature dog or something portable like a gerbil – less so an independent-minded moggy!

While a couple are in a relationship they might choose to agree a ‘pet-nup’. Like pre-nuptial agreements, they are an increasingly popular way of trying to avoid some of the difficult issues that arise when a relationship breaks down, the idea being the parties both feel more secure in the relationship knowing they will be adequately and fairly provided for should the worst happen and the relationship comes to an end.

It can do exactly the same for pet issues, setting out what the owners agree will happen to their animal companion if they go their separate ways and how care costs will be met after separation. Although not legally binding, the pet-nup can be an essential tool in avoiding stressful and expensive disputes at a later date and keeping the matter out of the Courtroom. If the matter does require Court proceedings, and the Court agrees to deal with pet issues, the pet-nup can be taken into consideration.

When drafting such an agreement, I urge clients to think about every aspect of pet ownership including who arranges and pays for insurance, visits and travel arrangements if necessary, and first refusal for the other owner if the pet ever has to be re-homed.

Where issues can’t be resolved directly or there is no pet-nup, I can help by negotiating on a client’s behalf to try to ensure they achieve what they want for their pet, whether that’s continued ownership, visitation, or just to know the pet will be well cared for. This takes into account the principles the Court uses but also other factors like the unique circumstances of the people and pets involved, and the welfare of the pet itself.

Mediation is another option. An independent third party can help a former couple to work their way through the issues around pet ownership in the same way they would with issues relating to children of finances. Mediation can be fairly swift and cost-effective way to settle disputes. In many cases, the significance of having reached a decision about arrangements together and in a co-operative way can ease a little the painful transition involved in relationship breakdown.

If you’re experiencing relationship breakdown and are worried about your pet, or if you think a pet-nup might make things easier if a relationship comes to an end please telephone 01227 763939 to arrange an appointment with our family law team by telephone, video conference call or in person at one of our three offices.