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Holly Chandler

Solicitor - Brighton & Hove and Seaford

21st February 2017

Top Dog or Top Cat? The Rise of the Pet Custody Battle

A relationship breakdown is stressful enough with the possible thought of divorce proceedings looming, but what if your beloved pooch or moggy is suddenly thrown into the mix, and disputes arise as to who should be awarded ownership of the pet and with whom the pet should live with?

Pet custody battles are becoming increasingly more common during divorce proceedings, and are no longer reserved for high profile celebrities arguing over who should have custody of the family pet. Cue flashback to 2004 when Kirsten Dunst separated from long term love, Jake Gyllenhaal and a lengthy Court battle ensued over custody of their pet dog, Atticus.

The Dogs Trust have revealed that a fifth of separated couples confirmed that deciding who keeps the family pet after a divorce is as stressful as resolving issues relating to the couple’s children. But is the law as clear cut when it comes to resolving issues regarding family pets, as it is with children disputes?

Pets under English law are viewed as being mere chattels; that is they are akin to fixtures and fittings and are dealt with in the same way as resolving a dispute over who keeps the contents in the former matrimonial home. Unfortunately, the law does not reflect the emotional ties an individual can have with their pet, which in common situations can be viewed as a substitute child. Pets become an integral part of family life and the family unit, and often the thought of losing a pet to the other spouse can be as difficult and distressing as the divorce itself, if not more so.

Courts can be reluctant to get involved in disputes concerning pets; much the same as arguments over who should keep the flat screen TV or new toaster, the Court’s preference is for these disputes to be resolved between the parties directly and without the Court’s involvement.

But what if this is not possible? The Court will attempt to determine whether the pet is a personal chattel of one party or a joint chattel of the marriage, as well as practicalities as to who is best placed to look after and care for the pet. In the case of unmarried couples, the stance tends to be who the pet is registered to and paid by as to who should have ownership of the pet. In any event, it is not uncommon for costly legal proceedings to ensue.

It is wise to consider a ‘what if’ scenario if you and your partner/spouse should separate, and decisions made beforehand as to who should keep the family pet. These arrangements can be contained within cohabitation agreements, pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreements so as to alleviate the stress of making those decisions further down the line. To discuss further, please contact Holly Chandler in our family team at either Brighton & Hove 01273 329797 or Seaford 01323 897766

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