As unlikely as it may sound for a nation of animal lovers, in English law, animals are defined as personal chattels. This puts them in the same legal category as linens, furniture, books, and jewellery during the divorce process.
When you start considering the custody of pets, there is not just the emotional impact of handing over your cat or dog to your ex-spouse. Pedigree dogs, for example, may have ongoing financial value in terms of breeding rights.
In contrast, there is also the ongoing cost of taking on the family pet. With the annual cost of keeping a horse estimated at £3,105 per annum excluding accessories, you may have to think long and hard as to the sustainability of making a claim over the family pet.
Will the court make a decision on the custody of pets?
Judges will take into account the inherent expense of looking after a family pet when considering the financial provision overall, but the financial impact of running two households from an income which previously ran one should not be underestimated and can leave families struggling to manage.
In cases involving separation of those who are not married or in a civil partnership, the court is likely to look no further than who paid for the animal.
When married or in a civil partnership, the pet is part of the ‘shared pot’ requiring allocation. Few Judges are likely to allow valuable court time to be dedicated to arguments over pet retention. Whilst a sympathetic Judge may be willing to make a decision based on the animal’s welfare and who has historically been the care provider, it is not impossible for a court to order the sale of the pet with division of the proceeds, if this looks to be a means of resolving an impasse.
How can you help look after pets during a divorce?
The best advice is for both parties to discuss the issue realistically. If you can agree a system of shared care and division of costs, it is possible for this to be recorded as an agreement between you. However, if one person is going into rented accommodation, the likelihood is they will not be able to take any larger free-roaming pets with them. If you can’t agree a mediator may be willing to assist with a view to guiding both parties towards a compromise.
In January 2017 Alaska introduced a law requiring the court to take into consideration the well-being of the animal when considering who will be best placed to take care of the family pet. It is perhaps time for this jurisdiction to recognise the emotional value attached by many to their beloved pets.
For advice on the custody of pets during a divorce, please contact Anita Scorah in our Family Law team on 01625 442123.