In the UK, 52% of UK adults own a pet, according to the PDSA. That’s 10.2 million dogs, 11.1 million cats and one million pet rabbits. We’re a nation of animal lovers who see pets as part of the family, much like a child. We become emotionally attached; we give them names, love them, train them, care for them, and watch them grow.
It’s no wonder, then, that an estimated one in four divorce disputes is over custody of a family pet or pets. At a time that is already traumatic and fraught with tension, the additional realisation that you might be separated from your beloved animal can be the final straw. The result can be an expensive, drawn-out dispute, with both partners digging their heels. The decision process can be further exacerbated if they’re working dogs, prize-winning pedigrees, or thoroughbred racehorses. Then there is the consideration of business property, breeding rights and winnings. So, what’s the solution? With an extra 3.2 million pets bought since Covid, as reported by the BBC, how do you decide who keeps the pets in the divorce?
UK law and pets
Under current UK law, pets are viewed as ‘chattels’ or possessions. Similar to furniture, they’re considered equal to the family sofa, which is in direct conflict with how our pets make us feel. To the 52% of the UK population with them, they’re family members whose loss will be felt and grieved. Many consider this thinking outdated, but without a change in law, the court’s hands are tied. That’s why pet owners are so desperate to retain custody.
Some savvy couples have drafted clauses in their pre-nuptial or cohabitation agreements about what happens to the pets in the event of a breakup. Others include pets as part of their financial proceedings during the divorce process. Couples create rules about custody, pet visitation, costs, and upkeep to retain some form of connection with their family pet. However, the unfortunate reality is that it’s almost impossible to enforce them if the other person doesn’t comply. That’s why reaching a decision you can agree with and stick to is critical.
What happens if we can’t make a decision?
We understand that deciding on custody of the family pet is already emotional without the additional pressure of court proceedings and the hurt from a breakup. It can be challenging to agree on how to make it workable for both parties and can inspire protracted arguments that cost you both time and money. Resolving this problem can feel impossible, but taking these crucial steps increases your chances of finding a solution effectively and efficiently.
Negotiate with your partner
All discussions about your shared pets must start here. Simply put, it’s the most cost-effective way to deal with the problem, as any agreements you make here save you money further down the line. We advise you to agree as much as possible regarding custody, visitation, costs, and upkeep before advancing to the next step. This can lower the number of sessions you require with mediators and reduce your court fees by ensuring that any disputes focus on critical points of contention and don’t waste time on ones you have already agreed on together.
Mediation is perfect for when negotiation between you and your partner has broken down into incomprehensible shouting matches. It’s flexible, voluntary, and confidential. Solicitors will often recommend them independently, as a court requires a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting) for your divorce petition to be heard in court if there are any problems. The primary exception to needing a MIAM is cases with evidence of domestic violence.
A mediator’s job is to be an impartial third party who won’t take sides but can help you reach an agreement. They’re trained and certified by the Family Mediation Council to listen, problem-solve, and find workable solutions for both parties to help you reach an agreement. It’s important to remember that this is not a free service, so you might want to shop around and compare prices if that is a concern. The session lasts only an hour, and it’s important that you bring evidence to support any claims you make and focus on the key points of contention between you. You’ll need to pay for more follow-up sessions if you can’t reach an agreement within that hour. When the process is complete, the mediator creates a memorandum of understanding which solicitors can turn into a consent order that a judge can approve, so if your partner does not keep to their side of the agreement, you can take them to court.
Arbitration shares some similarities with mediation in that it requires a third party to help you reach an agreement out of court. However, unlike mediation, it’s binding and can take place in a private courtroom or via paperwork. It’s a cheaper alternative to resolve discrete issues that hold up your divorce proceedings and drive-up costs.
An arbitrator is agreed upon and hired by both parties to listen to evidence on both sides. Less formal than a courtroom, you can decide on the venue to have it in-person or via letter and determine which arguments are covered. At the end of this process, the arbitrator gives an arbitral award – a binding decision that both partners must abide by and can turn into a financial order in family court. The only time your solicitor might advise you to skip this step is when there is a high risk that your partner will hide assets or lie. Otherwise, it’s a genuine alternative to court proceedings. It’s particularly useful when it comes to an emotional issue like the custody of the family pet.
If all other options have failed, the only option is to take your case to court. A judge can make decisions on ‘chattels’, bearing in mind that they will only consider certain types of evidence. Your solicitor will only advise you to go down this route when every other option has been exhausted. It’s time-consuming and very expensive, particularly when you are seeking a decision on one particular issue.
What will the court take into consideration?
In court, the primary factors the judge will consider as evidence are:
- Who paid for the pet
- Who’s registered as the named owner
- Who pays the pet insurance
- Whose name is on the microchip
- The welfare of children who’ve bonded with the pet
Unlike a child’s, the welfare of your pet is not included in the judge’s consideration. However, they will likely want to know whose lifestyle and income best support the pet’s care.
Taking the first step towards divorce can be overwhelming, especially when pets are involved. At Waldrons, we understand that they’re a part of the family and worth more than all your possessions. Our caring Family Law team will work with you, offering tailored guidance and support to resolve custody of your pet effectively and efficiently, and guide you through the divorce process. Our lawyers are dedicated, upfront and honest, and they’ll work tirelessly to help take the stress out of the process and ensure you are never in the dark.
At Waldrons solicitors, we also understand that the cost of a divorce is of the utmost concern, which is why we offer fixed fees and a six-month payment plan for extra peace of mind. Contact us today for more information and advice on finding a solution to the custody of your pet.
Last reviewed on 11/07/23 by Alka Wood who is a Solicitor