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So you are in the process of getting divorced. You have made arrangements to sell the house and split the proceeds, you have amicably sorted out contact arrangements for the children. But what happens to the family dog?
You may think of Fido as a member of the family, but in the eyes of the law your pampered pooch will rate about as highly in the pecking order as a sofa or a painting – and the amount of time allocated to dealing with them at Court will be apportioned with just as much importance.
There are several ways that ownership can be dealt with, such as by agreement between the parties, if the pet had been purchased pre-marriage then the details of who will look after them in the event of a relationship breakdown can be set out in a pre or even post nuptial agreement. And if the parties are cohabitees this could also be set out in a cohabitation agreement drawn up before they live together or in a separation agreement in the event that they are separating and have no document to detail the splitting up of their assets.
If parties have an issue in respect of children then applications can be made to Court for things like Child Arrangement Orders to detail where children will live, who will predominantly look after them, house them, feed them and when the other parent will have contact with them. But because the law does not regard a pet with the same level of importance, then no such orders exist for them.
Therefore if one party takes the pet and refuses to give it back then technically it can be regarded in law as theft the same as if someone had made off with a car or a laptop etc. Therefore instead of making an application to the Family Court for a remedy, if an agreement really cannot be reached then a claim can of course be made by the party from whom the pet has been taken to the Small Claims Court as you would do if a mere item had been stolen and not returned.
A Judge will have a range of options open to them such as they could order that one party is the owner and the pet should be returned to them/remain with them, they could order that possession of the pet should be equal and therefore contact/ownership should be shared. Or they could even order that the dog be sold, and the proceeds split between the parties!
So how would someone set about proving that they own the pet?
With any kind of legal action taken this is never an exact science and the outcome is never guaranteed, even if the answers to all the above questions are all in favour of one party.
For example, in the event of a separation of the parties if one party is having to go out to work and is never home to walk a pet whereas the other party remains in the home too look after young children then they may be regarded as in a better position as being more present to care for the pet, regardless of whose name anything regarding the pet is registered in.
The Family Court “may” deal with the pet as they would any other chattel and they may consider a pet’s maintenance within any financial arrangements needed, but generally the Court does not like doing so. If this is the case, the only real course of action to be reunited with the pet would be Small Claims Court.
In Family Law, as in most other areas of law, prevention is always better than cure.
Therefore, it is always a good idea to consider pets when drawing up any legal documentation – or revising existing documentation in the event that pets are introduced after documents have been drafted. It is usually much easier and less stressful to deal with the splitting of assets – including pets – if agreement has been reached at the start of the relationship and there is a signed agreement in place to support this. This saves, time, energy, money, and heartache in the long run.
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