Who gets the dog?
The coronavirus pandemic has seen a substantial increase in the number of families purchasing pets.
Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association reporting that a total of 3.2 million households bought an animal during this time.
These pets, understandably, become a very important member of the family, but if its owners decide to separate, there can often be disputes as to who gets to keep them, as Glynis Wright MBE, partner and head of Nelsons’ family law team in Leicester, explains.
In recent years, family law practitioners have seen more and more separation disputes over pet ownership, to the point where they’re now a common feature in divorce proceedings.
According to a 2019 survey from Direct Line Pet Insurance, more than 28,500 of the 111,000 UK divorce cases in 2018 included a dispute over custody of the family pet – equating to 90 divorce cases every day.
However, with a huge 17 million pet-owning households now across the UK and the number of divorce enquiries expected to rise as a result of the pandemic, there will be many people wondering what they can do to ensure their beloved pets are cared for should a separation happen.
Pets in proceedings
The separation proceedings where there are disputes involving pets tend to involve couples who may have been together for a number of years but don’t have children.
In these instances, the couples may have invested a lot of emotional energy in a pet, so it can be traumatic for them if they separate from their partner and have to make the decision of who gets to keep them.
More often than not if the couple have children and the pets are attached to the children, it’s less of a problem. For example, if a couple separates and the children stay with their mum, then often the family pet will stay with the mum as well.
However, where there are no children, the courts can find the issue more difficult. Ultimately, the judge will treat the family pet as an item of property in the same way as the contents of the house would be.
Previous circumstances will also be considered; for example, if a pet belonged to the wife before the couple were together, the judge will normally rule that it should stay with the wife, even if the husband has invested a lot of love and care in the pet during the relationship.
It’s fairly common for the judge to tell the couple to decide between themselves. If they can’t, the judge will order that the pet be sold and the proceeds divided.
This is only likely to work if there’s any monetary value in the pet. This is what usually happens if a couple can’t agree about how to divide the contents of the matrimonial home.
Putting the paperwork in place
One way to avoid these kinds of disputes is to enter into a written agreement, referred to as a petnup. This agreement records who gets to keep the family pet should they separate in the future.
This type of agreement has become more popular in recent years and provides evidence to the courts during separation proceedings that there is an existing agreement in place.
It then assists the judge when it comes to deciding what’s to happen to the family pet.
A petnup agreement can assist during a separation, making discussions more amicable and, importantly, gives couples one less thing to dispute.
These types of agreements – along with prenups and postnups are still fairly rare and aren’t legally binding, although there is a growing number of pet-related arguments meaning petnups could become more popular and be given more consideration by the family courts.
However, it’s worth noting that while the advantage of a petnup would be that it evidenced what had been agreed before the separation, having an agreement of this type does reinforce the view that the pet would be treated as a piece of property in the event of a relationship break down.
Additionally, these agreements can also create further disputes about their validity, whether they could be legally upheld and what would happen if circumstances had changed since the agreement was created.