Who gets the dog in a divorce?
As a nation of pet lovers, owning 27 million pets, the issue of where the pet lives after separation can spark acrimonious arguments between separating couples.
An essential part of family life, pets create strong emotional bonds with their owners. Integral to the social calendar and outings, they often accompany the family on holiday.
Under the existing laws, when marriages and relationships fall apart, the courts deal with pets as an item of personal property like cars, furniture or books.
New laws coming into force in California in January 2019 will prevent this by giving judges the authority to decide who gets pet custody in the same way they determine child custody. Judges also take into account key issues such as who feeds and walks the pet and takes it to the vets. We do not have this provision in the UK.
If you haven’t included future provision for your pet in a pre-nup, I recommend the following steps:
1. Irrespective of who bought the pet; avoid it becoming a bargaining chip in deciding the ownership of assets.
2. In the same way that you and your ex would work together to put your child or children’s well-being first, discuss what outcome would be in the pet’s best interests. If your pet has a strong emotional connection with your children and you are their primary carer, it makes sense for it to remain living with you to create stability. Some couples let it travel with the children when at each other’s homes.
3. If your ex is also close to the pet, try and stay amicable and let him or her see the pet. You can maintain healthy routines by suggesting dog walking in some of the time your ex spends with the children. Your ex may also want to look after the dog while you and the children are on holiday – resulting in a practical and financial ‘win-win’.
4. If you’re unable to work things out and the pet was a gift from your ex to you or vice versa, a court might rule ownership of the animal remains with the donee.
5. Try not to remove the pet (as many do) from the ex’s house without warning or request. This always ends up in a very acrimonious separation.
It is important to be aware that a court will do anything to avoid making a direct decision about who gets the pet. The court will only decide the legal ownership of the pet, which might not be the outcome either of you want.
When deciding the way forward, consider the impact of the breakdown on pets who are also affected by the negativity and uncertainly of divorce and crave stability and routine.