In England and Wales, the law regards pets as a ‘chattel’ or ‘personal possession’. Therefore, a court will treat the family pet as an item of property in the same way as other assets such as a house items or a vehicle when considering how to address matters on divorce or separation. Therefore the starting point is that whoever bought the animal and whom it is registered to is the sole legal owner. The only exception is if there is clear evidence that the animal had been gifted to the other party.
What if we cannot reach an agreement?
The best approach is to try to agree how to deal with pets on divorce. If you and your partner cannot reach an agreement about the family pet directly, you should consider mediation. This is where you both meet with an impartial third party to help you resolve the issue. If mediation does not work, the pet will be considered as part of the overall financial settlement.
If there is a dispute over a pet in court, the court will consider who the rightful owner of the animal is based on who bought it and who has paid for its upkeep such as food, insurance, and veterinary bills. The court will also take into account whether or not the pet was bought as a gift for the other party. However, the court will not take into account who has handled the majority of day-to-day care for the pet nor will the feelings and best interests of the pet be taken into consideration. If one party bought the pet before the commencement of the relationship, they will keep the pet upon separation.
It's also not uncommon for the court to instruct the couple to attempt to reach a mutual decision and, if they are unable to and it is found that the pet has substantial monetary value, the court can order the animal be sold and that the proceeds be split equally between the parties.
Is it possible to transfer ownership of the family pet?
Where parties cannot agree on who will own the family pet, the courts will determine who has ownership documentation and will rule in their favour. There is also no legal requirement that the legal owner give the non-legal owner access to the pet.
In some cases, ownership of the family pet can be resolved by transferring ownership between the parties, sharing ownership and sharing costs. Courts can order transfer of ownership, in the same way as any other marital possessions.
If you are going through a separation, or are thinking of buying a pet if your spouse and would like to know more about pets on divorce, please contact our specialist family law team.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.