Who gets the dog after a divorce?

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John Roberts, a Partner and Director of Austin Lafferty, has experience in all areas of family law – including divorce and separation, adoption and contact.

Divorce is, of course, an extremely stressful and difficult time for all involved, and a situation that can become more contentious when a dog is involved. Both parties will likely have a strong emotional connection to their four-legged friend, so how does a court decide who takes responsibility for the pet once the relationship is over?

Can the ownership of a dog be disputed civilly?

Whether or not the ownership of a dog can be disputed civilly will heavily depend on the nature of the divorce. Ideally a couple will negotiate reasonably and come to an agreement without solicitors having to be involved. However, every divorce is different from the last, and making decisions in this high-tension scenario can often be difficult.

What is a dog in the eyes of the law?

A dog can be the core of a family unit, with as much emotional connection as one may have to a child. However, in the eyes of the law, it is quite different.

Children are classed as legal parties, and in instances where custody needs to be arranged through the court, decisions are made in the best interest of the child, taking into account their age as well as physical and mental needs. Dogs (and any other pets) are not considered a legal party, but instead are simply classed as an object. This means that deciding on the ownership of a dog is conducted in the same way as a co-owned car or a piece of furniture.

So, who gets the dog after a divorce?

Since the dog is viewed as an object or property, they conform to usual property rules and its ownership is decided as such. There are a variety of factors that come into play, but most often, the decision is made based on how the dog entered the relationship.

If one partner owned the dog prior to the relationship, then sole ownership will most often lie with them, since originally it was their pet and not co-owned by both parties. However, if the dog was purchased by one partner as a gift for the other, the recipient of the gift is most likely to gain full ownership.

In most scenarios, these rules will determine the ownership without any other factors being taken into consideration, however, couples with children may see an alternative outcome. Children often gain a strong emotional connection with family pets and the court may rule that in the best interest of a child, the dog should reside with them.

Although a dog is viewed as property, the court will be well aware that it remains a living and breathing animal, therefore decisions may be swayed by the financial situation of both parties and their working patterns.

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Is there an opportunity for shared ownership?

With divorces concerning children, it’s common that both parents will receive shared custody of their children, with both parties having equal rights enforced by law. Similarly, divorce cases involving a family pet can be resolved in a similar way, but this highly depends on cooperation from both sides.

Can you declare ownership of a dog within a pre-nup?

A pre-nuptial agreement, known as a pre-nup, is an agreement made and signed prior to marriage, which in the event of a divorce predictates the split of assets between a couple.

Ownership of a pet can be declared within a pre-nup, and this will be taken into account in the event of a divorce. This does not fully guarantee the court will agree but it will be a strong factor in the decision-making process.

Is the decision swayed by who the dog loves more?

Unfortunately, in a lot of divorce cases involving a dog, both parties express equal desire for ownership. A court has to make this decision based on the law, rather than any emotional views.  A judge may allow both parties to express their feelings regarding the dog. Ultimately though, affection and familiarity are not grounds for deciding ownership.

This is a guest essay by John Roberts. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

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