Who keeps the family pet in a divorce?

When couples separate or divorce, arguments over who gets to keep their much-loved shared family pets are far from unusual. Bethan Hill-Howells, a solicitor in Thrings’ Family team, discusses the options available to those trying to resolve what can often be an extremely emotive subject.

Many of us consider our pets part of the family, yet under English and Welsh law animals are viewed in the same way as other possessions and household belongings. As such, whilst pets are very much living and breathing animals, they are treated as property or “chattels” for the purposes of separating couples divvying up their possessions.

The arguments around who keeps the pet are often very emotive. One party may use the pet as a bargaining tool, while the other may want to dig their heels in when it comes to making a decision about the animal’s future. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, a court may need to intervene, although this should always be a last resort.

When deciding who keeps the pet, the parties should look at a number of factors:

  • Who purchased the pet?
  • Was the animal a gift from one party to the other (e.g. an anniversary or birthday present)?
  • Who has assumed responsibility for the pet (e.g. paying for pet insurance, vet bills and general upkeep)?
  • Current housing arrangements of the parties (e.g. does one party have a garden or live in a flat?)
  • Working hours of the parties (does one party have more time at home to care for the pet than the other?)

To avoid disputes regarding pets (and other possessions), separating parties could consider entering into a cohabitation agreement or a pre-nuptial agreement. If parties are cohabiting but are not married, parties can enter into a cohabitation agreement which documents how assets - including pets - should be divided between the parties if a separation occurs.

If parties are engaged or due to be married, they can enter into a pre-nuptial agreement, which works in a similar way to a cohabitation agreement in that parties document the division of assets if the parties were ever to separate and divorce. It is important to note, however, that whilst a pre-nuptial agreement shows the parties’ intention of how the assets should be split, they are not legally binding and can therefore be challenged.

Where possible, parties should try to work collaboratively on separation - as difficult as that can be sometimes - in order to avoid often stressful, emotional and expensive disputes.

To discuss anything covered in this article, or if you have any questions about divorce and separation, please contact Bethan Hill-Howells or another member of Thrings’ Family team.