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What happens to my pet if my relationship ends?
November 2022

Many families consider their pets to be integral members of the family but, sadly, the issue of what to do with a pet at the end of relationship is not a matter that is always settled quickly (or ends happily for everyone involved).

Pet sharing (or ‘co-petting’) is a new phenomenon; however, it is something we are passionate about helping couples to navigate if they wish. Pet sharing is not for everyone and, of course, there are some occasions when one pet owner might be better placed to have sole care after separation than the other.

The law in England and Wales currently treats pets in the same way as other possessions/assets, such as cars or jewellery. This is usually at odds with the feelings of the people in a relationship, and their children, who feel an incredible closeness and love for the family pets. This can often lead to lengthy legal battles over who gets to keep them.

‘Til dog do us part

If you are ending a marriage or civil partnership, the Court may decide who will keep the family pets. If the family pets are an area of contention, the Court will break the deadlock between parties. For example, if you have a dog, the Court may order transfer of ownership or pedigree paper in the same way that they would for land or any other physical possessions.

The Court may also make provision for the costs of upkeep of the pets when calculating income needs of the party keeping them. This could include things such as food, vet bills, kennel space, and access to a garden or land (for example, for horses). The Court will consider all of these factors as part of the overall financial award given by one party to the other.

The law in England and Wales does not make any provision for how the Court should decide who gets to keep the family pets on breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership. However, the main factor that may contribute to the Court’s decision will be who devoted the most time to caring for the pets. This was demonstrated in a 2011 court case, where a judge refused to make an order for the transfer of the family dog to the applicant (wife), in a divorce case, as the dog had principally been looked after by the respondent (husband).

Ways to avoid later dispute over pets

The easiest way to avoid any future difficulty or contention is to pre-empt the problem. It is possible to enter into a cohabitation agreement, if you do not intend to marry in the near future, or a pre-nuptial agreement, in anticipation of marriage or civil partnership. Similarly, if you are already married or in a civil partnership, you can enter into a post-nuptial agreement. Each of these agreements may set out (amongst other things) any arrangements for care of the family pets, including who they belong to and who they will live with should the relationship end.

The relevant agreement may also provide for each of you to have custody of the pets in some way or to have visitation, as you might a child. However, this may not be feasible depending on how the relationship ends between you and your spouse or partner.

Pet custody if you are not married

If you are not married and live with your partner but do not have a cohabitation agreement, the Court may make the decision on strictly legal principles – the pets belong to the person who paid for them. If you paid for a pet, you might evidence this to the Court through receipts and invoices or any registration you may have (for example, with the Kennel Club).

Co-parenting and co-petting

Deciding what to do with the pets, on top of everything else in a divorce, may feel overwhelming but finding a way to keep the pets in the family could be worth the trouble, especially for any children. For children, pets are playmates, confidants, and constants. When a child’s world is spinning due to their parents’ divorce, having their trusted family pet by their side can help to relieve some of the things they are likely to experience. Your family pet may offer comfort to your children in a way that nobody else can during an otherwise confusing time.

Sharing a pet after a divorce might not be a good option for everyone; however, it does provide a way for your children – who you may also share time with – to stay with their pets as they start the transition into living in each of your separate homes. That said, every pet will handle changes and new home environments differently. Sharing pets between houses will therefore depend on how well your pets will adapt to this arrangement.

In this situation, using a shared calendar to track your pets’ care schedule, along with your children’s parenting schedule, will come in handy. You will also want to find a peaceful way to manage expenses related to your pet and maintaining a shared log of pet-related costs can be helpful.

You can informally decide how you plan on ‘co-petting’ or what happens to your pets after your separation. However, at Jolliffes, we also offer a ‘co-petting agreement’ service where we can provide expert advice and assistance to document your pet arrangements post-separation or divorce.

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss further, speak to one of our specialist Family Law solicitors on 01244 310 022 or at law@jolliffes.com

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