Paws for thought – pets and divorce
Dogs are often cited as man’s best friend and therefore when a couple come to divorce/dissolve their civil partnership, who keeps Fido? This issue has come to prominence in the media in recent years due to a number of celebrities arguing over the arrangements for their beloved pet when they separate. Many of us will have read about Ant MacPartlin (of Ant and Dec fame) and his former wife, Lisa, who reportedly arrived at a ‘shared custody’ agreement over their chocolate Labrador, Hurley.
However, with there being almost as many pets in the UK as there are people, this issue does not only affect celebrities. All of us who have a pet at home know how they become a cherished member of the family, and yet English family law treats pets as ‘chattels’ (personal possessions). Essentially on divorce/dissolution, pets are treated the same as the sofa or TV. The judge has discretion as to who should own the pet and the animal can be the subject of a property adjustment order. However, the family court may be reluctant to deal with such issues on the basis of proportionality as they only have limited time and resources.
The approach of the English family courts is behind that of other areas of law here and in other jurisdictions. Outside the family law context, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 considers what is deemed to be suitable for a pet (ie living environment, making sure their welfare is protected etc). In a number of American States the ‘best interests’ of the pet are taken into account, similar to the situation in England where the court decides for example which parent the children should live with and how much time they spend with the other parent.
Whilst there are calls for a change in the law to give our pets a greater status than a chattel, in reality any change is likely to be some way off. Separated couples are best off trying to negotiate an agreement, whether that be directly or with the assistance of a specialist mediator with experience in dealing with pet disputes. There is room for an imaginative solution such as the couple agreeing a one week on and one week off arrangement. If there is no agreement the couple may need to attend arbitration so that there will be a binding decision. Arbitration is typically more streamlined than court proceedings and can deal with a discrete issue. Court should only be seen as a last resort.
Couples could also consider a ‘pet-nup’ at the time of getting a pet. Similar to a pre-nup, the court is not legally bound by this but may take it into account if the couple later separate.