A divorce is often an unpleasant experience for everyone involved, with assets of financial and sentimental value to split, and it becomes harder if there are children involved… or if the couple has a dog.

Claire Glaister, of family law firm Lake Legal, says that arguments over who gets the dog are becoming increasingly common in separation cases, ofter creating a stalemate situation in which neither party is willing to leave the dog to the other. This is difficult to settle because, unlike children, pets have no different status than a TV set or a car in the eyes of English law.

“Who gets the dog is a question we increasingly face in separation cases and it can often get nasty. Judges don’t always feel the same way about the importance of the pet as the pet owners do,” Claire says. “They will not spend a lot of court time deciding who should be allowed to keep the family pet, instead giving greater priority to sorting financial arrangements and child arrangements.

“Some judges even frown upon the issue of pet ownership being raised in court as unless there is a value attributed to it, it’s viewed as being trivial in the context of the wider relationship breakdown. This can often be at odds with the feelings of the parties involved in the split.”

As with children, parties should take time to consider what’s in the best interest of the animal rather than themselves.

 A widely publicised instance, she says, was the divorce between Hollywood actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in 2017. Of their two dogs, Pistol and Boo, one originally belonged to Heard while the other had belonged to Depp prior to the beginning of the relationship. This could have made the split easy, with each party keeping their dog, but one of the arguments that were used to obtain custody of both dogs was that separating the bonded pair would be detrimental to their welfare. It goes to show that dog owners do not view pets as mere possessions in divorce cases.

“The easiest way for couples to avoid difficulty over pet ownership is to resolve it before the divorce case comes to court,” Claire says. “In cases where couples can’t agree on ownership, there are lots of options to avoid adding to the stress of the separation such as joint care and alternating weekends in a similar way to child arrangement agreements.

“Pet owners should also remember that animals like routine and don’t like to be moved around and unsettled. As with children, parties should take time to consider what’s in the best interest of the animal rather than themselves.”

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