What will happen to your pet?
For most pet owners, their companions are part of the family, so if a couple separates, what happens to them?
According to a survey undertaken last year by Statista, 62% of households (approximately 17.8 million homes) own a pet, and with an average of two pets per household, that’s over 35½ million domestic animals homed across the UK. Dogs proved the most popular pet (13 million), with cats coming in a close second (12 million) and just under 60% of pet owners were aged between 16 and 34 years old.
In law, pets are viewed as ‘chattels’ or property, and treated the same as the family car, furniture or artwork. Unlike children, there is no specific guidance in law or criteria on what the Court will consider when determining ownership of a pet.
Section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 gives the Court the power to make a ‘Property Adjustment Order’ and even an ‘Order for Sale’, but these only apply if the parties are married. If a couple is in a relationship and/or living together, the issue of pet ownership is likely to be dealt with under Small Claims Court.
When determining which Order to make in relation to a pet, a Court may look at;
- Who bought the pet? Is there a name on any purchase documentation?
- Who is the registered owner? The contact listed on any microchip, for example?
- At what point in the relationship was the pet purchased?
- Whose name is registered on any insurance or at any veterinary practice?
- Who looks after the pet on a day to day basis?
- Who pays for the pet’s costs?
- Was the pet a gift from one party to the other, or from a friend or family member?
None of the above is determinative, and it will always be down to the discretion of the Court to decide who should retain ownership of any pets and what points to consider.
There is some, albeit limited, case law such as RK v RK in 2011 where the Judge stated they did ‘….. not consider it appropriate to make an order in respect of one of the dogs because, on the evidence I have heard, they would seem to be have been looked after principally by the husband.’
In another case, K V K in 2005, the Judge commented, ‘the division of chattels must be accomplished prior to trial,’ showing the court’s reluctance to make an order around pets.
In the event of a dispute, parties may wish to consider ‘mediation’, where a a third party, preferably with experience in pet disputes. can help the parties reach an agreement. There is also ‘arbitration’ where it is agreed to give the third party the power to make a legally binding decision, but both methods often prove quicker and cheaper than a Court Application.
The best way to prevent this situation is for a couple to enter into a Pre-Nuptial or Cohabitation Agreement.
‘Pet-Nups’ or ‘Pup-Nups’ as they have become known, can set out not just who owns a pet, but also payments towards the costs of care, contact and effectively allow pets to have similar arrangements to children in the event of separation.
Although not automatically legally binding of enforcement, recent case law suggests that the Court are attaching more weighting to agreements between the parties where these are entered in to freely and willingly.
As with any agreement that is potentially legally binding, parties should obtain bespoke legal advice.
Disputes are demanding of time and finance, so parties should ensure they have in place a clear written agreement about arrangements for their pets when looking to get a new furry or feathered family member.