What happens to family pets when relationships breakdown?
What happens to the family pets when relationships break down? Is it possible to agree in advance what should happen to them and how can we go about it? The starting point for the Family Courts is to look upon pets as “property”. But they are so much more.
The starting point should be deciding what is best for them and not what is best for us. Will a dog pine if he or she has to live with one partner and not the other on the breakdown of a relationship? Will a cat wander back to its familiar territory? Is it fair on them for their care to be shared? Is it even possible if one person is at work all day? Who is going to pay for their care, vet bills and insurance? Will it be possible for one person to look after them while the other is on holiday?
These are just examples of the more important issues which need to be thought about. The owners know their pets like no-one else and they need to make decisions about their future care. That is the responsibility we take on when we get pets in the first place.
Pre-nuptial and Cohabitation agreements:
Judges can make decisions about pets when couples divorce but there is little scope for them to do so if couples are not married. The Family Courts are extremely busy, and it is therefore likely that Judges will simply not have the time to spend making considered decisions about what happens to the family pet or pets.
The answer is either to plan in advance; while many couples put agreements in place to protect their assets, they should be encouraged to think about their pets. For example, when entering into a Pre-Nuptial or Cohabitation Agreement include arrangements for the pets, or agree and sign an agreement which deals only what will happen to pets in the event of separation and divorce – so-called “Pet-Nups”, the pet equivalent of a pre-nuptial agreement, but with pet welfare at its heart. The animal charity, Blue Cross, has some useful guidance and draft agreements on its website.
Legal advice should not normally be needed but it might be required if agreement cannot be reached. It would be rare if after an agreement was reached that a Court would interfere and alter its terms, but it is possible. There are some parts of the agreement that a court will not enforce, such as lifestyle choices like who takes the dog on holiday or how the cat should be cared for, but deciding these details between you could still help to take the conflict out of a difficult and emotional break up. If no such agreement is in place, then consider mediation to talk through the problem and look at solutions.
If one person does have the care of a family pet, the expense of looking after it is taken in to account when financial issues are being considered by the Family Court on divorce. This can be especially important when what happens to ponies and horses is at stake. The cost of looking after them can be very significant.
So, pets are undeniably not just “property”. Their well-being needs to be first and foremost when their owners go their separate ways and the law will respect considered decisions which those owners make and if they cannot agree will decide for them.