What happens to pets in a divorce?

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It’s estimated that 57% of the UK population own a pet, and with almost half of marriages ending in divorce, the issue of ‘who gets to keep the dog’ is much debated during separation.

For many couples, the cat or dog is like a child to them and is considered very much part of the family. When couples are making arrangements during separation, the division of finances, assets and property, as well as any childcare arrangements, can be incredibly stressful. And that’s before you’ve thought about adding your loyal companion into the mix.

How do you decide who keeps the pet in a divorce?

In UK law, a dog, and indeed any pet, is regarded as a ‘chattel’. This means that they are viewed as an item that is owned in the same way that a car or a TV is.

Because of this, when it comes to divorce, custody of a pet is usually very tricky because the divorce courts are more concerned with dividing the major assets (house/pensions etc.) and they have very few powers to deal with sorting chattels.

If a couple cannot decide who keeps the pet between themselves, then the issue could be decided according to who the legal owner of the animal is. In other words, the person who purchased it.

The idea that whoever buys the family pet can keep it causes disputes between separating couples. After all, one person may have paid for the pet but what happens if the other party did all the dog walks, bought the food and paid the vet bills?

What determines pet ‘ownership’?

When establishing who legally owns the pet, your family lawyer will advise you that asking the court to decide, should be the last resort and the costs involved in lawyers getting involved could be very significant.

If, however, the court is asked to decide the issue, you will need to provide written or oral evidence to your solicitor on the following:

  • Who bought the pet (including whose name is on the contract made with the rescue centre or breeder)
  • Whose name is registered with the Kennel Club, if applicable
  • The name registered on the microchip database
  • The name registered at the vet
  • Who is registered on the pet insurance certificate
  • Who usually takes care of the dog, i.e. walks it and feeds it
  • Who pays for the day-to-day expenses
  • Was the dog bought as a gift?

What happens when couples can’t agree on the custody of a pet?

Firstly, it’s important to try and resolve the dispute privately and outside of court. This can be done using mediation. Mediation allows the couple to openly discuss both sides (with a mediator present to keep things focused and friendly) and come to an agreement that will be recorded in a legal document.

Your divorce solicitor can arrange for you to meet with a specialist mediator. There is Government funding available now for mediation so it might be free for you.

Court proceedings

Our family lawyers strongly recommend trying everything possible to reach an agreement outside of court. However, if you have exhausted all other options and are struggling to reach an agreement, you can ask the court to decide who gets custody of the pet.

Court applications to decide the issue of pet ownership are very rare because they are expensive and time-consuming, and the court will not account for your emotional ties to your pet.

Contact our divorce and separation solicitors

If you and your partner are starting divorce proceedings or you have already separated and need advice on splitting your finances, property and assets, including the family pet, we can help. Our divorce and separation solicitors work with clients across the UK from our offices in Bristol and South Gloucestershire.

To speak to our expert divorce solicitors, call us on 0117 325 2929 or fill out our online enquiry form.


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