The case for pets during a separation by Joanna Lofthouse, Senior Associate in the Family team at Raworths
This is a question I’m asked surprisingly often when advising clients following a separation, and it’s a question that can be tremendously difficult to answer.
It might seem like a strange question but for many people who go through a separation, the issue of what happens to the pets can be fraught with difficulty. Whether married or not, when a relationship breaks down there are laws to help determine the care of children, their maintenance and the division of assets, however the issue of family pets can also arise and become an area of significant conflict.
There is no specific law available to provide guidance on this issue and therefore pet owners are faced with the stark reality that (from a legal position), pets are chattels i.e. belongings. Normally the reaction to this reality is one of shock, after all people have an emotional attachment to their family pet, how could it possibly be compared to an inanimate object such as a piece of furniture!
No one would suggest that pets are akin to children but the emotional attachment to an animal is all too real and cannot be ignored. The law provides clear guidance on how children’s issues should best be resolved, however there is no such thought process or concept when it comes to family pets. As a result a disproportionate amount of time can be spent and antagonism created in the course of discussions over animals. The issue of who the dog or cat will live with, whether they will spend time with the other party, what medical treatment they should have and who will cover their costs can be hotly disputed – this can lead to protracted and upsetting negotiations which could be avoided.
The number of people wanting to plan ahead, in case their relationship breaks down is increasing and as a result cohabitation and pre-nuptial agreements are becoming more common. On this basis, there is no reason why individuals can’t deal with ownership of their pet as an item in such a-document. Alternatively a separate, legally binding contract that sets out the arrangements for family pets, in the event of a separation, could be entered into. This could include issues such as ownership of the pet, contact, vet’s bills and breeding.
To date, such agreements haven’t been tested by the courts, however assuming the document has been correctly drafted and doesn’t undermine any other legal document or process, then it should be something the Courts can take into account, ultimately reducing or eliminating conflict, whilst speeding up the process of resolving matters in an amicable and proactive way.