Who gets Fido in your Divorce?
For most families, their pets (be it a dog, cat or guinea pig) are beloved members of the family - so what happens to “Fido” or “Mr Meow” when people separate?
Given the integral part some people’s pets play in their lives, decisions concerning who becomes the primary carer for pets can be traumatic and often leads to increased tension and hostility in any family law separation.
There are a number of reasons that people may contest who keeps family pets:
- Parents may argue over who their pet will live with in relation to parenting matters – seeing the family pet as a draw for children wanting to spend time or live with them
- Parties, usually where there are no children involved, can have strong emotional attachments to their pet
- Occasionally, one party will use their pet as a bargaining tool to try and achieve a greater division of the matrimonial assets in their favour. There have been many cases where one party has offered the other significantly more (or been prepared to accept less) provided they keep their pet.
Whatever the reason, disputes over the family pet appear to becoming more common.
The Courts however, have very limited capacity to deal with such issues. Pets are generally treated as personal property (in a similar way, unfortunately, to CDs or clothes) or, if the pet is a breeding animal, as a business asset. Either way, pets don’t have the same rights in the Court system that a child has, that is, the Court isn’t concerned with identifying the best interests of the pet (whether the parties should share the care of, or otherwise have visiting rights).
In a handful of cases the Court has ordered that the family pet travel with a child between households. This type of Order would only be to help the child feel comfortable moving between households, rather than legal recognition of shared care of a pet. For example, recent orders were made for “Stevie” the parrot to accompany his owner, a young boy with Down Syndrome, between his parents’ homes.
Increasingly, separating couples will argue through the Courts for custody of their pets. Although the owners have a strong emotional attachment to their pets, the Courts tend to take a dim view on parties who initiate proceedings solely in relation to their furry family members, in circumstances where there is limited time and resourcing to deal with the matter. Accordingly, many people are negotiating their own “care arrangements” for pets by way of informal agreements or signing financial agreements to avoid battle over their four-legged friends.
If there is a dispute over where the family pet hangs their collar at the end of the day, and it forms part of the issues before the Court, the following considerations will be relevant:
- Consider any children first – is the pet an important part of their family life and can you argue that it is in the children’s interests to have their pet go with them
- Who usually has responsibility for the day-to-day care of the pet, including vet visits. This may be relevant when considering financial matters in a property case and may also help determine who has the closest bond with the pet
- Who purchased the pet
- Who the registered owner is and who holds the registration papers.
As mentioned, private agreements are an option for those wishing to formalise arrangements for the care of pets, however, this requires consensus between the parties. Such contracts can also contain financial provision for the care of the pets, including payment of veterinary insurance and bills.
If you have any questions on what may happen to your pet in a separation or divorce, please contact our Family Law team: