A survey by the Dogs Trust last week came up with the finding that a fifth of separating couples found deciding who gets the dog to be “as stressful” as deciding who should care for the children.
Apparently, some people are so concerned about what will happen to their pooches if their relationship with their human partner should break down that they are setting out arrangements for their dogs in prenuptial agreements, which have been jokingly referred to as ‘pre-pups’.
So, just how do the courts in England and Wales deal with such matters, assuming a ‘pre-pup’ hasn’t been entered into?
Well, the first thing to say is that the courts do not treat them as ‘custody’ claims, as if the pets were children. Pet lovers may find this offensive, but the courts treat pets as property, just the same as the furniture, the cutlery and the garden tools. There has been some talk of courts in other countries treating pets in a similar fashion to children, but don’t expect it to happen here any time soon.
So, what does this mean in practice?
In general, the court is supposed to take all of the circumstances of the case into account, before deciding what should happen to the pets. However, it is unlikely that the court will allow its precious time to be spent analysing such things as who paid for the pet’s upkeep, or who spent the most time caring for it.
The most important point, however, is that, unlike disputes relating to children, the court is under no obligation to take into account the welfare of the animal. So, for example, the effect upon an animal of a change of home will not necessarily be given consideration.
None of this gives much indication of how a court is likely to decide a dispute over a pet. Indeed, there is little in the way of guidance because there are almost no reported cases, although I understand that it is not uncommon for courts to resolve the issue of who has the family pet by simply ordering that the animal share its time between the parties. Such orders are probably made to avoid wasting time actually deciding the issue.
As you can see, leaving it to the court to decide what should happen to your pets can be an extremely unsatisfactory and uncertain business. The best advice, therefore, is to do everything you can to agree these matters with your ex, rather than rely upon the court to sort it out.