Sawing the dog in half: How to deal with pets during a divorce

    Sawing the dog in half: How to deal with pets during a divorce

    When it comes to deciding who keeps what following a divorce, some personal belongings, often termed as ‘chattels’, are more emotive than others. Pets are a prime example, since they are often considered one of the family, rather than a possession like the sofa which is easily replaced.

    What does the current law state?

    Unlike children, our Courts are not obliged to consider the welfare of animals when deciding who should keep what from the marriage, or ratifying an agreement already made between the parties. Further, the Court does not have the power to order care arrangements for pets in the way it does with shared contact and care of children. It is limited to determining who is entitled to ownership.

    Who is entitled to ownership?

    Ownership can be defined as simply as who purchased the pet. However, whatever the factual background, it is always better for couples to strive to agree both ownership of and care arrangements for animals between themselves.

    As things stand in England and Wales, if an agreement cannot be reached between the parties as to care arrangements for family pets, this could be subject to protracted negotiations between the couple’s lawyers. This, ultimately, means expense. 

    This principle spans wider than pets, since it is easy to lose sight of proportionality when embroiled in a disagreement about division of the assets. For example, an item that may be worth £500 can easily end up costing thousands in legal fees if it is the subject of a dispute.

    Is it worth going to court for your pet?

    Asking a court to make a decision about your pet should be the last resort. Any responsible lawyer will discourage their client from arguing over minor material possessions because it does not serve the overall goal of resolution between the couple. Instead, the ability to be flexible and focus on the bigger picture can save you a significant amount of money, not to mention time and stress.

    Proportionality is a term that is bandied around a lot in divorce proceedings, for good reason. Insisting on your “day in court” over disputes involving animals, or items of little monetary value, is usually ill-advised as it necessitates difficult and lengthy proceedings. It can lead to a big legal bill, ultimately leaving much less in the pot to be shared than would otherwise be the case.

    Will the law on pets ever change?

    As time progresses and animal legislation becomes more robust and welfare-based, we may see things change.

    Last year, the State of Alaska amended its divorce statutes to include the need for any Court dealing with proceedings involving pets to consider that animal’s welfare before making a decision. The Alaskan Courts were also given the power to order joint custody for such animals, if it is considered in the pet’s best interests following the divorce of its owners.

    England and Wales may follow suit in the fullness of time, particularly if disputes about pets become a growing trend in divorce proceedings.

    However you agree and arrange the finances, or arrangements for pets, the crucial thing is that you do. If you do not conclude monetary matters and have a formal agreement (court order) put in place, financial claims by either ex-spouse will still be possible to pursue years after the marriage has come to an end. This leaves both parties and their respective assets, even those acquired post-divorce, vulnerable and subject to distribution.

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