10th January 2024|In Latest News, Divorce & Separation

The Ultimate Guide To Pet Custody: All Your Questions Answered

Introduction

We understand the question of pet ownership can be both confusing and emotionally challenging – they are, after all, part of your family.

We have therefore created this guide to help you navigate some of the most common questions.

Please keep in mind that this is for general guidance only, and in practice every case is approached on its own merits. To discuss your circumstances specifically, please call 0333 344 6302 or email info@blanchardslaw.co.uk.

“I would like to thank the team at Blanchards for securing the swift return of my dog, Remy. They were professional and kept me in the loop and couldn’t have done anything more to help me in my matter. Also thank you to Claudia for her investigative work to retrieve vital information to my case, writing a letter of claim and communicating between both parties.”

– Wendy Ford

Can you only help with pet custody issues within the context of divorce, or can you also help when it arises from cohabitation?

We can help with both!

The only condition is that the separation has to be with an ex-partner or family member. We can’t help with a dispute between  you and a neighbour, or between you and a pet shelter, for instance.

Are pet disputes common between divorcing and separating couples?

Yes, very common., we’re seeing more pet disputes than ever before. In fact, we get two to three enquiries for it every day.

What are my legal options if I’m getting divorced and want ownership of my pet?

If you’re married and have a pet, then under UK law it is a joint marital asset, and you can  establish who will keep the pet when you’re talking about a financial settlement within divorce proceedings. Custody arrangements for the pet, insurance and vet costs could be defined as part of the financial order. For example, if you have a dog, the court may order a transfer of ownership of the pedigree paper the same way they would for land or any other property. The court may make provision for the costs of upkeep of the animal when calculating the income needs of the party keeping the pet. This could include things such as kennel space and gardens for dogs, vet bills or even land for horses. This will be considered as part of the overall financial award in financial remedy proceedings.

In general, the court deals with pets as ‘chattels’ or an item of property, like a TV , and therefore civil proceedings in a County Court in front of either a Deputy District Judge or a District Judge, rather than in a Family Court. The court will require a separate application to be brought by a person who wants a pet dealt with as part of a  cohabitation dispute. The relevant application form is an N1 Claim Form.

We understand that treating pets in this way, as if nothing more than an item of furniture or other inanimate object, can be distressing. Adults and children alike feel intense love and affection for the animal, and this can result in drawn-out custody battles which place great strain on all involved. As animal lovers, we appreciate the temptation to head down this road, but it is important to understand the more clinical perspective a court will take, and the limited powers that the court has.

During a pet ownership dispute, a court will indifferently determine who the owner is and has the power to not only make orders (such as for the return of the pet from one party to the other) but also apply damages for wrongful retention of the pet.

How will the court decide who keeps the pet during a divorce?

UK law does not define how a court should decide who gets to keep the family pet. However, the factor that often influences the decision will be the question of who has historically committed the most time in caring for the animal.

Some judges are reluctant to make an order regarding pets and will not spend a lot of court time hearing evidence. The judicial system views financial arrangements and child arrangements as much more pressing matters.

We weren’t married but rather cohabiting. What does that mean for settling a pet dispute?

If you’re in a cohabiting relationship then it’s quite clear – the legal owner is the person who paid for the pet.

If that person is you and we are acting on your behalf, we will give the other person a deadline to return the pet within a Letter of Claim, and that would be treated as a warning before the commencement of court proceedings. If we do not receive a proper response from the other party, the next step would be to issue a Claim Form at your local County Court. We must pay a small court fee, which is dependent on the sum paid for the pet. We would draft the Claim Form and file this with the court on your behalf. However, we do advise that you represent yourself at court to keep costs down.

Where things can get tricky is if the pet was jointly purchased. In which case we might suggest you continue to share ownership of the pet or one party can buy the other out. We often recommend mediation in this situation and always treat court as the last resort due to the time and costs for all involved. It’s also possible that court may result in an outcome disagreeable to both parties, such as the order for the pet to be sold and proceeds divided.

What if the pet was gifted by one partner to the other?

If it’s within a marriage that will be addressed in financial  proceedings during the divorce. But if you’re cohabiting and one partner gifts the other a pet, then that is a transfer of legal ownership. However, you must be able to support it with evidence. That could be a text message, a social media post or something else that clearly states it was a gift from one party to the other. Otherwise, ownership will remain with the party that made the purchase, as that person will almost certainly possess evidence (such as the bank statement or communication with the breeder) that proves they made the purchase.

What if someone else bought the couple a pet?

These cases can be tricky. For example, perhaps the parents of one of the parties bought the couple a dog as a gift after they moved into a new home. In that instance, the parents are likely to say they bought the dog for their child rather than the couple, so it comes down to supporting evidence. Again, perhaps there’s a text message or social media post that clearly states the intent of the gift. These cases can be quite complicated to prove one way or the other.

What if one party bought the pet but the other party registered it?

This is a common area for dispute where one party may have purchased the pet but the other argues“I took the lead in all other matters. I registered the pet, I’m on the microchip, it’s my details with the vet, etc.”

These are all important factors that might work in your favour under certain circumstances, but that doesn’t establish legal ownership. The legal owner is still the person who paid for the pet.

What other things might work favourably for someone making a claim?

If you paid for the food, paid for the vet, were the primary carer, etc, these are all details that could help if the pet was jointly purchased. However, if there is evidence that one party bought the pet then that is where legal ownership rests.

Does it matter what the pet is?

We’ve helped couples with snakes, rabbits, goldfish, guinea pigs and various exotic pets. There is no species that is exempt from these rules.

Can one party buy the pet from the other?

This is one way to resolve a pet dispute. Let’s imagine each party had paid £750 for a pet, we might suggest that our client offer £1,000 to the other party for their share, in recognition of the emotional connection they have with the animal.

Unfortunately, this often fails to resolve the matter. The party receiving the offer is likely to say that it’s not about the money. In this situation we would often encourage mediation, assuming both parties are willing to explore that avenue.

What if the pet belongs to a child?

Theoretically, if a child was gifted a pet then that child will keep it in whatever home they are residing. But again, gifting can be very difficult to prove.

What if a couple has a dog that puppies? Who owns the puppies?

It all comes down to who owned the dog that had the puppies. If one party bought the original dog then ownership of the puppies rests with them.

My ex may have bought the dog but they’re living in a flat that’s completely unsuitable for this kind of animal. Whereas I have much more space internally and a large garden.

Regardless of living situation, the legal owner is still the person who paid for the pet.

If there are welfare concerns, you need to contact the RSPCA. Sadly, it is not a factor that is likely to influence judgement in court.

If shared custody is agreed, how does it work in practice?

We can help you put together a ‘Shared Care Pet Custody Agreement’ that will state when the pet is to be with each party, for how long, how the costs will be divided, etc. Each party will sign and keep a copyThis way, should there later be a dispute, the document can be used in court to illustrate the intention of each party. However, please be aware that it is not itself a legally binding document.

Is there such a thing as a ‘Pet-Nup’?

There is, and they can play a useful role. This agreement can set out any arrangements for the care of the family pet, including who they belong to and who they will live with should the relationship come to an end.

There is no UK law that makes these nuptial agreements binding, however, and just like prenuptial agreements they are not always easy to enforce, particularly if circumstances change (for instance, one of the parties has moved abroad). Yet whilst not legally binding, the court will consider the agreement in reaching their decision on a fair outcome in the case. Ultimately, the decision to enforce any nuptial agreement lies with the Family Court.

The main benefit a ‘pet-nup’ is to set up expectations early on, and to help avoid any disputes between the parties should their relationship break down.

What if one of the parties lives outside the UK?

Laws are different in each country so if the pets are outside of England and Wales we would encourage you to seek legal advice from within the country in question.

What if the pet has been sold by the other party?

Sadly, that’s not a situation we’re able to help with as neither party now has legal possession of the pet.

What information will I need to provide if I make an enquiry?

We will need to know:

  • What is your ex-partner’s full name?
  • What is your pet’s (s’) name?
  • Who brought the pet and how the purchase was funded?
  • Who is registered at the kennel club/petlog?

Whose name is registered on the microchip database?

  • Whose name is recorded at the vet practice?
  • Whose name is on the pet insurance policy?
  • What were the previous care arrangements for looking after the pet(s) when you were together and following your separation?
  • Are there any emails/messages or documents regarding ownership?

We will ask for as much supporting evidence as possible at the outset and advise you accordingly before any action is taken. Please note, we will require £500 on account of costs to enable us to commence any work in your pet custody matter and before we look at any evidence that you provide.

Once we have this information, and have established that you have a claim,we will usually contact the other party and provide them with options designed to facilitate an agreement.

We hope this guide has helped. For more information, please call us on 0333 344 6302 or email info@blanchardslaw.co.uk.

Can we help you? Please call us on 0333 344 6302 or contact us through our enquiry form. All initial enquiries are free and without obligation.

Can we help you? Please call us on 0333 344 6302 or contact us through our enquiry form. All initial enquiries are free and without obligation.

Can we help you? Please call us on 0333 344 6302 or contact us through our enquiry form. All initial enquiries are free and without obligation.