Young couple playing outdoors with their pet dog

Family law

What happens to pets in divorce?

For couples looking to separate or divorce, there are many questions around how pet ownership is legally decided. Here, our experts answer them.

20 February 2022

Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Our pets are valued members of the family, just like our human relatives. We’ve welcomed animals into our homes for many years, but recently, the pet population has increased dramatically.

According to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, a staggering 3.2 million households in the UK have welcomed one in since the start of the pandemic, with two thirds of new owners aged between 16-34. In total, there were an estimated 34 million pets in homes across the UK in 2021. So, with pet ownership at a high and divorce rates having only decreased slightly in the peak of lockdown, it’s wise to consider what would happen to our beloved pets in divorce.

What happens to pets during divorce?

The first consideration of the English court in the division of matrimonial finances upon divorce is given to the welfare while a minor of any child of the family, who has not attained the age of eighteen. The English court does not currently recognise the special place that pets hold within the family unity; there is no mention of pets in the matters to which the English court is to have regard in deciding how to exercise its powers and pets are treated as mere chattels or items of personal property upon divorce.

However, recent developments in Spanish law mean that pets are now to be considered as ‘sentient, living beings’ on the Iberian peninsula. This means that the Spanish family court must consider the animal’s welfare during the divorce proceedings and the parties’ abilities to look after the pet. As a result, the Spanish court now have the power to decide shared custody and visitation arrangements with pets. Spain follows France, Portugal, and several other European countries in this change.

In the English court, however, it’s largely expected that divorcing couples should come to an agreement between themselves about pet custody and the expenses associated with their animals. It’s thought that if the English court must make a judgement on pet custody, then it would likely consider who paid for the animal (alongside various other expenses, such as food and vets bills), whose name is on the microchip, and who is registered as the owner of the pet at the vets.

The court may also then consider the most suitable home for the pet moving forward, particularly if there are differences in each spouse’s living arrangements and financial positions. This is in stark contrast to the other European countries mentioned above that place more importance on the wellbeing of the pet during a divorce as opposed to the financial implications.

How are people preventing disagreements over pets during divorce?

There’s been an increase in recent years in the drafting of a document known as a ‘pet nup’ agreement. This is a document detailing the care and living arrangements for a pet in the event of a future separation, which parties have agreed in advance between themselves.

It can help prevent future disagreements in respect of care of the pet and make pet custody after divorce clear. The courts are placing more and more weight on these kinds of agreements, as long as they clearly lay out the position of both partners and are made by two consenting adults. Alternatively, a clause concerning a pet can be included in a standard prenuptial or cohabitation agreement.

What to do if you can’t make a decision

While, understandably, divorce can be a very stressful time, communication is key when you’re making decisions around the living arrangements of your pet. Before seeking legal representation, it’s best to sit down and talk about your pet’s best interests with your partner.

Many couples share custody of their dogs and we have seen this in the media, with TV presenter Ant McPartlin and ex-wife, Lisa Armstrong agreeing to shared custody of their dog after their divorce. It just goes to show that if you co-operate, you can come up with a schedule or agreement that suits the needs of you both and most importantly, your pet’s needs, ensuring your loved one gets the best of both worlds after your divorce.

How can Slater and Gordon help?

At Slater and Gordon, we understand that the divorce process can be an emotionally distressing time. Our experts make sure our clients feel empowered throughout the legal process, even when they may feel that other things in their lives are out of their control.

If you need support and guidance from our award-winning family lawyers, contact us online today or call 0330 041 5869.

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