What happens to pets when a couple separate and divorce?
Having a much loved family pet can be an extra consideration when a couple separates. The issue may seem trivial for non-pet owners but maintaining a relationship with the animal can be very important.
Often couples will be able to reach an agreement without assistance. They might agree to share walking duties or even share the pet’s time between them, much as parents might do with children in a residence and contact dispute. This works well for animals that we tend to have deeper relationships with such as dogs and horses. It can be more difficult with animals that are either more independent, such as cats, or animals with which the relationship works in a different way, such as rodents, lizards, birds or fish.
Here you would expect to see one partner or the other taking full care and control of the animal.
What happens though if no agreement can be reached?
Family Law in Partnership’s Neil Denny was recently asked to deliver a workshop to mediators in New York. While he was there he learned of a mediator who specialises in animal mediation. Debra Hamilton has an entire practice where she helps New York pet owners resovle a variety of pet based disputes including this question of who will take the pets when a couple gets divorced.
If you cannot agree who gets the pets then try mediation
Mediating pet disputes makes a great deal of sense because the courts dealing with a divorce or a cohabiting issue will see the pet as nothing more than another belonging. This is often offensive to the couple who see their relationship with their pet as being much more meaningful than a relationship that they might have with, say, a kettle.
Increasingly busy courts and Judges are unlikely to be interested in evidence about who loves the guinea pig, tortoise or anaconda more, or to which partner the animal is more attached.
Mediating about pets – or any specific issue – enables both partners to make sure that their points of view have been heard and taken into account in ways that the courts just cannot do.
Dominic Raeside, leading family mediator with Family Law in Partnership recalls one case where the dog was pivotal in being able to talk about all of the other issues;
“Once the couple, who had no children, were able to talk about their dog and reach an agreement about how they were going to care for it, the rest of the issues including ownership of the house, became much more straightforward!”
This shows just how important pet ownership issues can be. They could well be the most pressing thing that a couple needs to see resolved and, having done so, agreement on the other matters can then move forward.
Who pays for the pets?
The courts will not get involved in dividing time and care for the animals as if they were children. They will only determine ownership as they might with a car, a painting or a teaset.
You might think it would follow therefore that the court will not get involved in awarding maintenance for a pet as if it were a child in need of provision. That is not quite true.
It is possbible, within divorce proceedings, to ask for monthly or regular payments from the wealthier spouse in order to maintain a pet.
In a recent case a husband was ordered to pay his ex-wife money so that she could stable and keep her horse. The husband appealed the case saying that the ex-wife should not have been given that part of the money and that she should have reduced her outgoings.
The judge disagreed. It was ordered that the cost of owning a horse had been established as the norm within the marriage and, if it was still affordable, then there was a reasonable expectation that this expense would continue and should continue to be funded by the husband.
This money was not maintenance for a pet, as if it were a child, but simply a recognition that the normal living expenses for this couple included livery costs for a horse.
“Won’t anybody think about the puppies?”
What about animal welfare when a couple separates?
There is a fascinating article from the Pet Owners Association (Click here) about how some animals may perceive and be affected by tensions in the home at the time of a family spearation. It is worth reading, especially for dog owners.
A pet is for life, not just till we get divorced…
What happens if neither partner wants the pet?
Again, mediation can help to understand what the issues are and may well be able to reveal an agreement that can be worked upon between the couple. Remember the case of S v S discussed above – if the cost of maintaining a pet has become the norm then a court is likely to order that the cost continues to be met so long as it is affordable.
If neither partner wants the burden of housing and caring for the animal though then matters become difficult. A couple should agree who will research ways of moving the pet on, via a pet refuge or other rehousing system. Both partners will need to be careful that they do not neglect the animal’s needs which could well be a criminal offence, of course, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
In summary, be aware that the courts will deal with animals in a very cursory and sometimes seemingly callous way. They are, in the eyes of the law, mere chattels or, in other words, things that we own.
Mediation can serve families going through separation to reach agreements that will last when dealing with issues that the court might not be well placed to do.
If you, or somebody that you know, is going through or contemplating divorce and separation then please do get in touch using the Contact page (click here) or by telephoning us on 020 7420 5000. If you know of any pets in divorce situations then please share them in the comments section.