Pets & Divorce in the Family Court
‘Dog Law’ as it is sometimes known, or ‘Pet Law’ does not come under one bracket of law. In fact, it is possible for a pet to be involved in both civil and criminal matters at the same time. A pet may be involved in a case where one party is suing another over their dog defecating on their front lawn repeatedly, or worse, there may be a case involving the Dangerous Dogs Act, in which some dogs have been taken from families due to their breed or even put down if the court decides it is necessary.
In family law, pets are treated as chattels, in other words they are considered to be the property of their owner and not a dependant, like a child would be. A judge in an English court would not consider the welfare of the pet when making a decision about its ownership, as opposed to in other countries where the animal is considered a living being and their wishes and feelings are taken into account by a judge when making a decision. There are many arguments as to why this should be changed, however for the time being it is crucial to know how the current system works if you are going through a divorce and looking after a treasured animal, who you may see as a living being even if the court doesn’t!
A pet may be involved in a family law case if there are financial proceedings as part of a divorce or dissolution. In this scenario, they are treated as part of the asset pot, and each party may make a claim to their pet as they would normally do for a matrimonial asset. For example, if the wife had bought a dog prior to their marriage for a significant fee, say £1,000, then she could claim full ownership as this asset was purchased by her solely before the marriage. However, if the parties had bought the dog together and cared for it equally for the entire duration of their marriage, it would not be as simple. It is worth considering whether there have been any other contributions, such as who has paid for the pet insurance and medical costs or if one party is caring for a child who has a particularly close bond to the animal.
Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of precedent for this, as there are few cases that have involved a dispute over pets. However, that has been increasing in recent years. In S v S  EWHC 519 (Fam) the judge overruled the wife’s claim on the family dog, as he saw that the husband had been the principal carer for the dog. This is closer to treating a pet as a living being with wishes and feelings. Although, it is always best to assume that the court will treat a pet as an asset, until the law changes to recognise them as much more than that.
If you believe that this issue may arise in your divorce or dissolution, then it is worth bearing in mind that court is not the only option, and you may want to do all you can to prevent the decision being made by a judge relying on laws that don’t consider your pet to be a living being. The first option would be mediation, in which an agreement can be reach amicably between the parties. Another option would be arbitration, in which lawyers are instructed in the same way as they would be in a court case, however the entire process takes place outside of court. Both of these alternatives are designed to be more amicable and less stressful.
If you would like advice on any of these matters, please get in touch with our matrimonial team for an initial consultation by calling 02076081227.