For many of us, a pet is regarded as a much-loved member of the family. So, when a relationship breaks down, deciding where the pet will live can be difficult and emotionally distressing for the parties concerned. It is not helped that in cases where parties have issued proceedings at court associated with financial matters arising from the breakdown of their relationship, that the court regards pets as personal property. In that sense, they tend to be treated in the same way as ordinary chattels, such as jewellery and contents from the family home.
The court’s preferred approach is that parties reach an agreement between themselves as to who shall be responsible for the family pet after separation. In this case, parties may find alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, particularly conducive in helping them to formalise arrangements. These would include arrangements for the pet to spend time with each of them and also how the financial obligations for the pet should be shared.
Regrettably, if divorcing parties cannot reach an agreement, the court will tend to focus on the issue of the ownership of the family pet, rather than consider its welfare, or which party has looked after it for the most part during the relationship. On that basis, the party who originally bought the pet is likely to succeed in keeping it after separation, particularly if they have continued to pay for most of the costs associated with maintaining it.
In relation to family pets that are pedigree animals, like horses and dogs, the court will attribute a value to them and consider them alongside other matrimonial assets in deciding how they should be divided between the parties. The court will also need to be mindful of any income that such pets are capable of producing from breeding, competing or showing, which could impact on possible maintenance claims that the parties may make.
Other issues that can arise with family pets include more general maintenance claims, as the cost of maintaining pets and caring for them will have to be considered as an income need. Should certain family pets require particular facilities, for example, stabling for horses, the cost of these facilities can also be considered as a capital need. These income and capitals needs will usually be factored into a financial order made at court on the basis that there is sufficient capital and income to provide for them and that they are classed as reasonable needs.
In view of the court’s treatment of family pets and to avoid any future dispute in the case of a relationship breakdown, parties may wish to consider the issue of pet ownership and maintenance in a pre-nuptial agreement before marriage, or a cohabitation agreement when moving in together.
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