I’m getting divorced – what happens to pets?

In a divorce or separation often one of the more contentious and emotive issues can be the question of who keeps the pet dog or cat etc.  Pets are often regarded as a member of the family.  They can provide companionship upon finding yourself without your spouse or partner, and, for adults and any children, they can be a constant and a furry friend to play with to alleviate anxiety.  They also force you to keep getting out and about for dog owners, to go for walks and continue to see people.  This can ensure you get fresh air, exercise and interact with people daily which hopefully helps with the anxiety and stress which understandably often accompanies a divorce or separation. So, what happens to pets in a divorce?

To answer the question of what happens to pets in a divorce, technically in law pets are regarded as chattels.  The definition of a chattel is an item of movable, personal property, as opposed to land or buildings.  As a family law solicitor and mediator, I therefore must inform my clients that pets are regarded as an item of personal property, like a car, boat, item of jewellery, painting etc.  If there is a dispute about a chattel technically it is decided by looking at who paid for it.  In reality, though, given it is usually disproportionate in terms of legal fees to argue about who keeps a particular chattel, it is rare to have contested court hearings about chattels.   It is the second-hand value of chattels that is relevant.  By the time you have argued about who keeps, for example, the TV both clients could probably have bought a new TV with the money they have spent on legal fees arguing about it! 

Fortunately, in all my years so far of practising as a family law solicitor and mediator I can count on one hand the number of cases where clients have argued over who keeps custody of their pets, may it even be a dog or a cat.  Usually, one person concedes that the other party can keep custody of the pets after divorce.  This divorce settlement may be for such reasons as they work full-time and could not care for the pets, for the benefit of the children, or because their new accommodation would not be suitable for pets etc. 

The income needs for both spouses are looked at when considering whether any spousal maintenance should be paid and, if so, for how long.  Costs associated with having a pet are therefore an outgoing, such as pet food, vet insurance and so on.  Often when people separate they need to cut their cloth and reduce their outgoings where they can as there is no longer enough money to go round to support two households instead of one.  Sometimes I have known clients to have to re-home their pets as they are no longer affordable.  Whilst this is sad, it reflects the new reality divorcing and separating couples sometimes must face when finances are squeezed.

If you would like further information or advice about a divorce and family law matter or family mediation such as what will happen to your pet please contact Sarah French.