A dog, a cat, a rabbit or indeed any pet can be a much loved part of the family and viewed as a family member. The arrangements to be made for the future care of the pet following the breakdown of a family relationship can be very difficult and cause much distress.
Many pets, particularly dogs, view themselves as part of the family - I know my own beagle does. The breakdown of the family routine and family relationships, as the pet knows them to be, can be confusing and upsetting for the pet.
There may also be more than one pet in the household, with pets having a relationship with each other. Separation anxiety might arise if they are parted from one another.
In the absence of agreement, the courts can be asked to decide what the future arrangements will be. If the family relationship is informal, the court will decide the issue using strict property law principles and decide, on the balance of probability, who owns the pet.
In legally-formalised relationships of marriage and civil partnerships, the pet is usually a 'marital asset' and, as such, is treated in the same way as other personal items, such as cars and furniture. The assets are divided either by agreement or at the discretion of the court.
Factors taken into account by the court when using its discretion include:
- Who bought the pet;
- Was the pet a gift and, if so, to whom;
- Who is responsible for the training, health-care and daily requirements of the pet, including feeding, cleaning and exercise;
- Who has the pet been living with since separation;
- What relationship any child of the family has with the pet and who the child lives with;
- Who pays the pet's expenses;
- The ability and availability of each separating party to care for the pet.
It is always better if an agreement can be reached between the separating parties. The focus of the parties should, of course, be firstly upon any attachment any child of the family has with the pet. Another important consideration is the day to day practicalities and who is best placed to provide the care and attention the pet requires.
Many couples are able to agree what is known as a 'shared care arrangement', with each party being able to spend time with the pet; both pet and owner can continue their relationship.
If agreement cannot be reached the court will determine the issue.
In 2014, the Blue Cross suggested that 1 in 4 divorces involved disputes about pets. Whilst many practitioners would probably say in practice the number is much lower, with the increase in couples buying or adopting new pets it is possible that disputes regarding pets following separation and divorce may also be set to increase.