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Fur-ever Families: Divorce and Pet Ownership

4 min read
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Philip Giles


Personal law family

Fur-ever Families: Divorce and Pet Ownership

In the realm of divorce proceedings, discussions often revolve around property, assets, and financial support of children. However, what about beloved pets?

As cherished members of the family, pets hold a unique place in our hearts and homes. But when a relationship ends, who takes responsibility for their care, and how can financial support be allocated to ensure their well-being?

Under English Law, pets are classed as a ‘chattel’ in divorce proceedings; this means the same legal status as other objects such as cars, art, jewellery, or a cup and saucer.

In other words, your beloved dog or cat is treated the same way as a rug or a chair. Some might say this is barking mad!

It is even worse if the relationship breakdown is not one of marriage. The pet then becomes the subject of a civil claim which is even less certain or sympathetic.

But around the world there is a debate as to whether pets should be treated as sentient beings (aware of their feelings and emotions in the same way humans) with greater legal status in family law.

Two significant cases heard in Spain following the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2021, have given weight to pets being treated as sentient beings. In October 2021, a Madrid judge gave joint custody of a dog to an unmarried couple who sought a court ruling on whom the pet should stay with after they separated. It was ordered that the dog should spend a month with each party, and both are legally responsible. Furthermore, a court in Pontevedra, ruled that a father must pay €75 a month per child and €40 for the dog, ‘representing half of the extraordinary expenses [and] veterinary bills”.

Spain follows a long list of countries who have introduced changes to their laws in respect of pets in family proceedings. For example, in 2014, France promoted the status of pets from “personal property” to “living beings”, and since 2017, couples getting divorced in Portugal need to state if they have any pets on their divorce application and, if they do, they must state what will happen to them going forward. It seems, under the law, it would be better to be a Portuguese pooch than a British bulldog.

How could this fit into English law?

As we have seen, in current divorce proceedings, pets are typically treated as property to be divided between spouses, often leading to contentious disputes over ownership. However, if pets were treated more like children, custody arrangements could prioritise their well-being and emotional needs over mere ownership. So, forget custody battles over the kids, it will all be about who gets custody of Fluffy. Talk about a ‘paws’ in the proceedings!

The courts could implement pet arrangements, which would be similar to child arrangements. This would mean that pet custody would be determined based on the interests of the pet. Some might say there is enough litigation in the world without courts fixing trials to work out the living arrangements for the family dog! However, the UK does love its animals; the PDSA report that 53% of UK adults own a pet.

Factors that could be considered are:

  • who the primary caregiver is;
  • the pets living environment;
  • visitation schedules;
  • financial support;
  • decision-making responsibilities regarding the pet’s welfare; and
  • pet maintenance (does a goldfish require the same level of maintenance as a dog?)

It is becoming increasingly common for couples to draft ‘pet-nups before they marry’. This document can set out who cares for the pet in the event of separation or divorce. This would be a good way of heading off a dispute later on and a purr-fect compromise for all pet lovers alike.

In 2022, the UK passed the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act which recognises the sentience and welfare needs of all vertebrate animals including decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs! It also requires policy makers to consider animal sentience when creating or changing laws. Therefore, when policy makers reform the necessary legislation, pets within family proceedings should be considered as sentient beings rather than property. It will be interesting to see if this results in pets being mentioned in future matrimonial legislation.

Perhaps it is just a matter of time before proceedings are reformed and the above proposals need to be considered. Well, so say we at Giles Wilson, where we love our pets!

At Giles Wilson, we understand the importance of all family dynamics. Our family team works to understand every concern you may have and factors in pets in relationship breakdowns, rather than treat them like chattels. If you experiencing problems surrounding your pets or you would like to discuss the above topic further, please do not hesitate to contact our family team and we will endeavour to assist.

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