Both divorce enquiries and pet ownership are on the rise thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. While it’s usually children that are prioritised, divorce can often significantly impact any pets involved and lead to heated arguments over ownership.
The affection felt for a dog, cat or other companion is a concept that can often be underestimated, especially when it comes to divorce. Battles over pet custody are becoming increasingly common and can cause serious conflict between estranged couples.
Paul Lancaster, Partner and Family Law Expert at Blacks Solicitors LLP, offers his advice to couples in the middle of a pet custody dispute.
Unfortunately, when it comes to divorce pet custody is usually resolved by simply identifying the legal owner as the person who purchased the pet originally. This is disputed by many couples due to the emotional attachment that is formed for the animal, so it’s advised that an agreement be made privately before it comes to settling pet disputes in court.
Couples should consider signing a prenuptial agreement to state who the pet will live with, along with who will care for the pet and be held financially responsible should the relationship break down at a later stage. Whilst in reality a pet is a living being and often regarded like a child of the family, in law it’s treated the same as any other ‘asset’ meaning there’s no reason why a prenup can’t be effective.
Legally, there’s no Act that protects the rights of a pet when couples divorce. This means that if matters were taken to court, the judge would not be able to make orders to decide who the animal should live with or how often the other party can see them.
In the first instance couples should opt for mediation rather than court involvement. This allows the couple a free forum to discuss both sides and come to an agreement that’ll be recorded in a legal document and signed accordingly.
If a couple can’t come to an agreement through mediation, arbitration is an alternative option whereby an independent decision maker would decide who gets custody of the pet. The decision would ultimately be based on what is best for the animal, taking into account living situations and lifestyle habits.
At a time when emotions are heightened a pet can seem like one of the few constant features of a significant and uncertain chapter in someone’s life. However it’s always important to remember that the animal will be aware of any stress and arguments, and their welfare should be prioritised above ownership.
If you’re looking for advice relating to pet custody, or any other matter of family law, please contact Paul Lancaster on PLancaster@LawBlacks.com.