We may think of them as part of the family but the law views cats, dogs and other pets just like cars, or houses in divorce – and that can lead to problems.
Recently, I have had a couple of enquiries about who gets the dog when a relationship breaks down. Often, people see their pets as family members and they have a clear emotional attachment to him or her. This is backed by research which shows that more than 80% of families with a pet consider them to be a member of the family.
Unfortunately, the law in the UK does not currently recognise this as being the case. It is an item of property in much the same way as a house or a car – the issue to resolve in the eyes of the law is, therefore, who owns it?
This can sometimes be sorted out quite simply by producing a receipt of purchase or an adoption certificate if the animal is from a rescue home or charity. If the animal has been purchased as a gift, then its ownership could be argued to belong to the person to whom it was gifted. If there is no such evidence, then the key point may be who pays the vet bills and has their name registered at the surgery? Who pays insurance premiums or buys food? These can help to decide a disputed “pet custody” case.
The fact is that because family pets are living property, there are many people who feel that they should not be dealt with under the same property laws as a house or a car, which can easily be replaced and to which some people have a much lesser emotional attachment (most of the time!).
The thought that thousands of pounds can be spent on arguing over the future of the family dog or cat for some people is incomprehensible. However, for others it is just as important as ensuring that they maintain a relationship in the same way as they would want to with their children.
It may be worth considering, when getting a family pet, who its owner is and being very clear about this between yourselves from the start. It may be helpful if ownership is easily provable by one person, with them being the main name on any documents or contracts associated with the animal, such as purchase receipt, vets bills and insurance. That would hopefully help to reduce time and money spent in the future arguing the case if the relationship breaks down.
In some countries, there is a move towards a legal test about what is in the best interests of the animal, almost in the same way that the law would consider the best interests of the children when arrangements for them to spend time with each parent cannot be agreed. Personally, I cannot see that such a legislative change would be high on the agenda for the UK government any time soon. Therefore, the more practical steps that can be taken from the outset, the less heartache around separating from a family pet might arise in the future. One partner may not choose to dispute the issue if it is clear that, from the start, the other has demonstrably taken the lead in caring for the animal.
Of course, we are looking at worst case scenario. For a couple whose split is amicable, they may be able to agree shared time with their pet – provided it doesn’t become a logistical nightmare for all concerned. Or should you just let the kids decide?
Family solicitor, Stoke on Trent