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Who Gets the Pets in a Divorce?

For many, the question of who gains custody of the family pet during a divorce can be a major concern. People form strong bonds with their animal companions and deciding who is the best candidate to care for them during a divorce is a difficult and emotionally charged process.

A specialist divorce solicitor can give you guidance on the laws surrounding pets in a divorce. It’s important to understand that legally a pet is considered chattel despite the strong attachments we form with them. This means that they are considered property, and the person who purchased the animal has the strongest claim on them.

However, this may differ depending on factors like if the animal was a gift, if there are children involved and who the primary carer of the pet is.

In the following article, we shall discuss the law surrounding pet custody after a divorce, including petnups and the possibility of shared pet custody.

What is the law surrounding pet custody after a divorce?

Despite pets being commonly thought of as part of the family, when it comes to gaining custody of a pet during a divorce, they are considered property, not unlike a piece of furniture or jewellery. Although this seems harsh, recognising this is the best way to begin fighting for pet custody. 

In most cases, the individual who paid for the family dog, cat, or other animal is likely to retain ownership. The court will also consider a number of other factors when trying to determine the rightful owner of the animal. This includes whoever:

  • Pays for the pet insurance
  • Name is on the contract
  • Is registered with the vet
  • Is primary carer for the animal, feeds them, walks them etc.
  • Name is registered on the microchip
  • Buys the pet food and other supplies

It may not be possible to prove all of the above. For instance, you may not have the receipts for all the animal food you have brought.

If the ownership of the pet is unclear, the court will begin to consider what would be in the animal’s best interest. In relation to dog custody, this may be whoever has the best environment for a dog to live in. For example, a home with a garden is more suitable than a small city flat.

What power does the court have when it comes to pet custody?

If there is enough evidence in favour of one person, the court has the power to grant them sole ownership of the animal. As discussed above, for this to happen, you would need to provide evidence of ownership, financial responsibility and primary care of the animal.

In the event that there is no clear owner of the family pet, the court may decide on joint ownership. In this instance, a joint custody agreement can be decided privately between the parties involved, or a court order can be made on a week-by-week basis.

Finally, the court has the power to decide whether the pet should be sold. This will only happen if they believe that neither party is capable of taking care of the animal or if no one is willing to do so.

Reducing conflict over pet custody during a divorce

Unfortunately, divorces are often filled with conflict, especially when it comes to who gains custody of the beloved family pet.

In order to reach an amicable agreement, you and your ex-partner may find it necessary to try to come up with a solution in mediation. Mediation is essentially a way for two people going through a divorce to reach an agreement on issues like who will keep the family pet, with the help of an impartial third party.

The mediator will aim to minimise conflict whilst giving both parties the opportunity to reach an arrangement that everyone is happy with. In the event that mediation fails, however, you may wish to instruct a family solicitor to negotiate for custody of the pet as part of the financial settlement.

What is a petnup?

Very similarly to a prenup, a petnup is a written agreement made in order to make key decisions related to a pet in case of the breakdown of a relationship.

Whereas a prenup focuses on the assets of individuals in a relationship and who will get what in the event of a divorce, a petnup focuses on ownership rights over a pet. Specifically, who is responsible for the animal in the event of a divorce or separation.

These decisions can be included as a clause of agreements like:

  • Cohabitation agreements
  • Pre-nuptial agreements
  • Post-nuptial agreements
  • Separation agreements

However, a petnup agreement is a standalone contract that focuses on pet related matters, including who will pay for insurance, vet fees, food, and other supplies. As well as who will provide care such as exercise.

In the event of a divorce, a petnup will prevent any further legal expenses and conflict, as the question of custody has already been decided. Because of this, the petnup is becoming increasingly popular amongst couples.

Can a pet belong to a child?

When deciding who should retain ownership of pets during a divorce, the Court will take the welfare of a child into consideration.

A divorce is a difficult time for everyone involved, but the dramatic change can be especially challenging for children. As the welfare of a child is always the top priority for the Court, custody of the family pet may be dependent on who has custody of the child.

This is particularly relevant if the pet ‘belongs’ to the child, and in this instance, the pet will likely continue to live with the child.

Although the Court will always try to make decisions that benefit any children involved, sometimes keeping the family pet and the child together is not an option. This may be because of the financial strain the pet can put on the party who gains custody.

Can you share pet custody?

The disputes that arise surrounding pets and divorce are common due to the strong emotional attachments that people build with their animal companions. This means that people often don’t want to part with their furry friends even if they are separating from a partner.

Because of this, sharing pet custody is often a popular solution. Unfortunately, having shared custody may not always be in the pet’s best interest.

Experts believe that dramatically changing a pet’s routine can cause the animal excess stress and confusion. Doing more harm than considered worth it for shared custody.

This does, however, depend on the individual animal and its personality, as some may adapt better than others. Additionally, the type of animal in question is also important.

Shared custody of dogs

Dogs become very attached to people making it easier for them to adjust to shared custody. If you are considering sharing custody of a dog, it’s important to create a solid schedule and make sure it’s clear who is responsible for what.

For instance, who will be taking your pet to the vet? Is there a primary carer, and how long will each party be responsible for the dog before switching?

It’s incredibly important to ensure that all of the animal’s needs are still being met, and that there are plans in place for any future challenges involving dog custody.

Shared custody of cats

Unlike a dog, a cat becomes attached to its environment and constantly moving can cause them distress. Because of this, it is recommended that a cat remains in a place they are familiar with.

Getting the pets in a divorce

Overall, the most important thing to remember when attempting to get custody of a pet during a divorce, is that you will require as much evidence as possible to prove you are the rightful owner.

If you do not already have a petnup, mediation or the court’s assistance can help decide the fate of your pet. The welfare of your children will be considered during this process, along with who brought the animal in the first place, who provides the most care, and who is financially responsible for the pet.

Do you need advice from a family law solicitor?

In order to have the best chance of securing ownership of your pet during a divorce, speak to our family law solicitors for advice and guidance.

We have office locations across London, Bristol, and Bath. So get in touch by giving us a call at your local branch or by filling in our online enquiry form.