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Pets can bring much joy to people. They are often seen and treated like a member of the family so, for couples who are divorcing, it can sometimes be difficult to deal with the issue of pet custody. Both parties love the pet and wish to keep it but, if they cannot reach agreement on how to share care, they will find that under English law pets are treated as chattels only. This means the law will deal with a pet in much the same way as it would deal with a sofa or table, rather than a child. This is often very confusing and upsetting for the pet owners.
If a couple cannot agree on how to share care of their pet, the issue can be dealt with in court, but the court will often take a cold view. It is not uncommon for courts to determine the issue of ownership based simply on which party paid the purchase price, which party paid the vet bills, which party paid the pet insurance etc. It is also very common for judges to make an order that the pet should remain with whichever party is to stay at the family home. Even if the judge does make an order about which party is to keep the pet, the court order will not cover other important issues such as visiting hours for the other pet owner, financial support for the person keeping the pet or any other additional decisions which are important to pet owners who have separated. The court's view is that this is the responsibility of the pet owners.
There has been a big rise in pet custody cases in recent years which has partly been caused by famous couples divorcing bringing the matter to court and therefore to the attention of the general public. Ant McPartlin and his former wife, Lisa Armstrong, after settling an acrimonious £31m divorce settlement, sought an order from the court that they have joint custody of their chocolate Labrador, Hurley, because they could not reach an agreement about the issue themselves. In 2016, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard also fought over their Yorkshire Terriers, Pistol and Boo, when they separated.
A study in 2018 found that more than 50% of pet owners admitted they prefer spending time with their pet than their partner and 40% confessed to giving their pet more attention than their partner so, when a marriage ends, it is not difficult to see why pet custody can be so difficult to deal with and the law does not make it any easier.
Given the limitation of the current law in respect of pet custody on divorce, it is best to reach an agreement with your spouse either directly, at mediation or through your solicitor. For couples who are planning on marrying and entering into a Pre-Nuptial or Post-Nuptial Agreement, it would be sensible to include details of your agreement on pet custody too.
For further information and advice on this issue, and other family law issues, please contact us for a free initial consultation on 01992 306 616 or 0207 956 2740 or email us.Back to Law Articles