Family Law Blog

What happens with the Custody of Family Pets in Separation?

The family pet – cat, dog, bird, fish or any of the other variants – can create a large amount of tension in the separation process.

So how does the Court deal with who gets “custody” of family pets in separation?

In this article, we’ll set out the general principles to be applied if the Court is asked to decide on the future of the family pet.

Pets Aren’t People

While we might talk about “custody” of family pets, they are not treated the same as children.

A pet, in truth, is treated as a form of property.

That means, absent agreement or some other reason, your pet will form part of the property pool that is to be distributed as we describe in this article here.

That said, Courts have increasingly adopted an approach that acknowledges the special and varied roles that pets play in family life. As a result, we do see some different approaches to resolving the question of where the pet will end up after separation.

The Simple Outcome – Consent

If the parties simply agree, then absent a special reason for the Court to believe that agreement should not be embodied into an order, the Court will likely make consent orders about how who the pet will live with going forward.

The Property Considerations – Ownership and Money

Technically, as part of the separating couple’s “property”, the Court can look at the pet using largely the same criteria as it would for the family car, the buffet or the dining room table.

The Court might enquire whether one party truly owns the pet rather than joint ownership.

Related to this, the Court will consider who contributed to the financial and non-financial upkeep of the pet during its lifetime. This might include who paid for the pet initially, who cared for it, who paid the veterinary bills and the like.

It is also relevant who is the registered owner of the pet (although, like a car, the registered owner is not always the actual owner).

Finally, the Court will consider whether one party has a more suitable house for the pet to live in.

Weighing those up, the Court can then decide the pet’s future home and whether one party might need to pay the other in the process (though household pets are often given a nominal value from a property perspective).

Children and Custody of the Family Pet

A dominant theme in family law is that the Court is to consider the best interests of children in the separating relationship.

This consideration can spill over into decisions about the custody of family pets in separation too.

So, for example, let’s say that a child of the relationship and a pet have a special bond and relationship. Perhaps the pet was bought as a Christmas present or helped the child emotionally through a difficult time in their life.

Suppose the evidence demonstrates that the best interests of the child weigh in favour of the pet staying with the child. In that case, this is going to affect the Court’s decision concerning the custody of the pet.

So, if one parent is given primary responsibility for a child of the relationship, then the Court might also order that the pet should go with that parent also in line with the best interests of the child.

This does not determine the end result – but it has been used as a decisive factor to tip the balance one way over another.

It’s Always Case by Case

As with most matters, if the parties cannot agree on an outcome, then the Court will need to consider all the relevant circumstances in deciding about custody of family pets in separation.

That will include the general factors we have described above, as well as other unique variations and individual circumstances that might exist.

Your family lawyer should be able to steer you in the right direction if you are in a disagreement about the custody of your family pet.

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