Lawyers will tell you that when a relationship breaks down it is usually money and children which cause the arguments. That may well be the case, but emotional issues and heated exchanges can also revolve around who is to have the family pets. Battles over with which spouse the family dog, cat or even budgerigar will live are far from unknown. The family pets are considered members of the family, and when the family breaks up questions of residence for the animals and even contact rights can be contentions.
Disputes over animals have been known to predominate and take over from everything else when otherwise an amicable division of the family assets could have been agreed. The family pet is the sticking point, often providing an outlet to vent personal frustrations which might otherwise not have surfaced.
Applications to the courts are sometimes made where a judge is asked to rule on who is to have a pet where ‘custody’ is disputed. The courts have on occasions in these applications been asked to follow the principle applicable to children of what is in a pet’s best interest. We know of a case where it was argued that a cat’s happiness took priority over the property rights between the parties.
The traditional approach however is to consider an animal as a chattel and matrimonial property, just like anything else. The difficulty is that although this may be good law, unlike the family car washing machine or three-piece suite, things become much more complicated because with animals it is much more emotional.
Most cases involving animals are settled before they reach the point of having to be decided by a judge. This is because of the cost which would be involved in employing lawyers for possibly days on end to argue your claim for the pet. Notwithstanding the question of cost, the best approach, however attached you may be to the animal, remains to try and negotiate an agreement. With the law as it is in England and Wales, the best interest of the pet will not be considered and the pet will continue to be treated as the parties’ personal property. And as any lawyer will tell you, the best way to divide up personal property can be with the toss of a coin.
If you have a pet who you are particularly devoted to, you should discuss what is to happen if the family splits up and consider recording this in a separation agreement. Above all, always be realistic about the practicalities of keeping a pet if you are going to be by yourself. Think how it will fit in with your living arrangements and working hours. In particular, never try to take a pet away from your children. Be open to a compromise agreement with shared care of the pet. Most important, as with children, always remain calm around the pets, as they can be very sensitive to conflict which may make them frightened or nervous.