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
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
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
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.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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