Pets In A Divorce

A Pet Is For Life, Not Just For Marriage 

For the majority of divorce cases, there will be an issue of contention between the couple, that can produce some of the most bizarre arguments, comments and final arrangements.  From couples who argue over an ornaments worth a couple of pounds, to the couple who were chastised by a judge for arguing over which side of the train station platform they should meet to hand over their children each weekend. 

One major worry for many couples – according to a survey conducted by The Dogs Trust – concerns what will happen to the family pet. The organisation claim this is a genuine concern for 1 in four broken homes with pets.  

Cases can become lengthy and expensive when pets are involved, mainly due to the fact they are part of the family, loved by not just the couple but any children in the family too.   

Like children however, pets can also be used as weapons against the other party, causing more pain and suffering, not just to the party that has lost access to a beloved pet, but also to the poor pet itself – an innocent bystander with no way to understand what is going on around it. 

In the UK, pets are treated as property.  If couples cannot agree as to whom the pet should be placed with, it will be up to the courts to decide, which will obviously increase any costs, especially if everything else has been decided on.  Clients can be reminded of this consistently, but some will still feel the need to gain ‘custody’ over the pet in question. 

If it does go to Court, it will be at the Court’s discretion as to where the pet will be placed, with them looking at who had been the primary care giver to the pet.   

The Court will also look to who actually owns the pet, but this is normally in cases where the couple are not married.   

The Court can also order a maintenance to be paid for the pet’s upkeep. It was reported that in a 2008 case, the wife was awarded £50,000 a year maintenance for 3 horses, as she had claimed the horses were ‘substitutes’ for children during the couple’s 11-year marriage. 

For many couples, they are unable to afford the cost of Court to argue their case as to why they should keep the family pet, but the argument can still continue, racking up solicitor costs.   

For a solicitor who is an animal lover, this can be quite upsetting too, seeing and understanding their client’s plight in fighting for a loved one, with no legislation helping them to achieve shared ‘custody’ at the very least. 

Today’s Family Lawyer garnered responses from Twitter, asking if any solicitors had had clients who had fought for custody of a pet and had these responses:

Arron Bortoft from Bortoft Bell let us know about one of his cases: 

I once acted for a wife on divorce where there was an issue regarding the family turtle. It was agreed at the very last minute that one party would keep the turtle, the other party refused to also provide the tank on the basis that he had paid for it. There was a farcical sequence of disagreements about whether it was practical for the turtle to be transported in the glove box of the removal van until pets at home opened the next morning, at which point another tank could be purchased, and the impact upon the turtle’s wellbeing. Needless to say, I didn’t charge my client for the correspondence, despite being the reasonable party and the keeper of the turtle.”  

Gabrielle Read-Thomas from Stowe Family Law LLP told us 

“I recall a client coming to see me about a golden retriever puppy that he had received as a present from his wife. They had separated and she had instructed a solicitor to try and have the animal returned to her care. He was very distressed about this having formed a close bond with the dog (even changing work patterns to fit in with its care). The dog was called Poppy. There were lots of other financial matters that needed sorting and a divorce to contend with but all he was interested in was the dog and making sure she stayed in his care. He was practically in tears about it when I first met him. There was quite a bit of protracted correspondence on the issue but ultimately it was agreed that it was in Poppy’s best interests to stay with her dad!” 

Sharon Giles, family law partner at Willans LLP solicitors, said:  

“I acted for one client whose children came along for their weekend visits with 2 dogs, their puppies, a cat and 6 chickens in tow. I suspected malice on their mother’s part but he was happy to go along with it – his new girlfriend not so much so. 

For some clients their pet is a replacement child and some unusual breeds can certainly come to light. One of my cases involved a giant-sized Maine Coon cat – I had to look it up! 

Problems arise when a leaving party returns regularly to the matrimonial home on pretence of wanting to walk the dog when actually it’s just a good excuse to keep an eye on the ex and generally snoop around.” 

If a couple have a pre-nuptial agreement which includes the issue of pets, this can be used by the courts in deciding where the animal should go? But as pre-nuptial agreements are still not legally binding within the UK, there is still a chance this could be contested.   

Gabrielle Read-Thomas from Stowe Family Law LLP told us: 

I do consider that the law needs some updating on this issue. Pets are treated the same as inanimate objects currently, and they are so much more than that to so many people. Whilst not quite the same as children, they are still living and breathing creatures who deserve to have their interests taken into account in my view.  

Shared care is a great idea, if it works for the pet, but the difficulty is you can’t explain to a pet that it’s owners have separated as you can with a child so sometimes more distress can inadvertently be caused. As with all legal things its case by case!”

Should the UK government look to implementing legislation designating pets more than property within a separation?  Should more weight be given to the well being and best interests of the pet, as they are with children, allowing for shared arrangements? 


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