Pets are commonly thought of as part of the family, and people build strong bonds and attachments with their pets. Unfortunately, the family courts do not view pets in the same way.

In the eyes of the family court, pets are considered as personal property, and as a result they will deal with them in the same way as they would a piece of furniture or jewellery on separation.

The courts’ focus when dealing with divorce proceedings is dealing with the finances and any children of the parties. Often with pet disputes the court will refer parties to non-dispute resolution, such as mediation. In IX v IY [2018] the court encouraged placing the dispute before a mediator or arbitrator, perhaps one with experience of dog disputes.

How can I avoid a pet dispute?
The best way to try and avoid being involved in a pet dispute on a relationship breakdown, is a petnup. Petnups can be a useful pre-emptive step when buying a pet with a partner, as they deal with the key decisions in relation to a pet in case of a relationship breakdown. They are similar to a prenuptial or separation agreement, but they only deal with pets and the arrangements in relation to them. They will often deal with the following.

• Details of where the pet will live.
• Who is responsible for paying for the insurance and vet bills.
• Who the pet is registered to.
• Who is responsible for the general day to day costs of the pet.
• Who has the authority to make decisions with respect to medical treatment and end of life.
• What happens if the relationship breaks down.

An agreement could be made for the pet to live between both parties. However, this may not be in the pet’s best interest, so it will need to be considered very carefully. Alternatively, clauses can be included in the agreement for the party with whom the pet does not live with, to still have contact.

What if I don’t have a Petnup?
If you don’t have a petnup and a dispute arises, there are still options available to settle the dispute.

1. The first step would be to negotiate with the other party involved to reach an agreement between yourselves. Any agreement reached could be included in any final order made at the end of proceedings.
2. If you cannot reach an agreement between yourselves, you could attend mediation. In these circumstances, it would be beneficial to meet with a mediator who has expertise in pet disputes. The mediator will try and help you both reach an agreement.
3. If, after mediation, you still cannot come to agreement, you could instruct a solicitor to help with negotiations.
4. If all the above fails, court proceedings could be considered. However, court proceedings are expensive and lengthy, and it is very rare for them to be for pet disputes alone, they are often dealt with as part of financial proceedings on divorce The decision to begin court proceedings is one that should be considered very carefully.

What will happen if I do issue court proceedings?
The court does have power to award or transfer ownership of a pet, just as they do with a piece of furniture and other items of personal property. One factor the court will consider is ownership of the pet. To help the court determine ownership, the following factors are relevant.

• Who paid for the pet?
• Who is the pet registered to?
• Was the pet a gift?
• Who pays for the pet’s insurance?

If ownership is difficult to establish, the court may briefly consider other factors such as:

• Does one party go out to work all day whilst the other works from home, resulting in one party leaving the pet for long periods of time?
• What hours do the parties work? Do they work full time, part time, or work shifts?
• Does one party have more suitable accommodation to meet the pet’s needs?
• Is the dog a therapeutic or service dog?

Another factor for the court to consider when deciding on who keeps the pet, is where the children will primarily live. The court must consider the welfare of children under the age of 18 when making final decisions and there are arguments that, due to the strong bond pets and children form, it is in a child’s best interest for the pet to remain living with them.

Whilst pets are an integral part of family life, they are deemed as property, and it is important to know the options available to you when dealing with a pet dispute.

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