Who gets the dog after a divorce?

October 22, 2022

Divorce is, of course, an extremely stressful and difficult time for all involved, and a situation that can become more contentious when a pet is involved. Both parties will likely have a strong emotional connection to their four-legged friend, so how does a court decide who takes responsibility for the pet when a relationship is over? 

Dogs become a part of the family unit with ease; they view their family as their pack, and it’s in their nature to love and protect the pack. We, as humans, feel just as much love for our dogs as they do for us. This combination can create a fairy-tale family, but unfortunately, not every relationship is built to last.

A dog in the eyes of the law

Many of us consider our pets as part of the family, with lots of couples viewing their ‘fur-baby’ similarly to how they would a child. However, under the law, a dog is a very different matter.

When children are involved in a divorce case, the court will make decisions based on their best interests, taking into account their age as well as any physical or mental needs, the ability of the parent to provide a safe environment, and relationships and emotional ties. 

Divorce cases involving a fluffy four-legged friend are dealt with quite differently.

In the eyes of the law, a dog is an object; someone’s property. This means that the dog will conform to standard property laws, like a shared car or piece of furniture. There are a few factors that will sway the decision of ownership, but the exact outcome can vary depending on each individual case.

So, who gets the dog after a divorce?

Similarly to other property items, ownership of the dog may be determined by how the dog entered the relationship:

  • If one partner owned the dog prior to the marriage, the courts are likely to grant them sole ownership.
  • If one partner bought the dog as a gift for the other, the recipient of the gift may be given legal ownership.

There are also other factors that can impact the decision:

  • For cases involving multiple dogs, the court may rule for them to remain together. This is often only if it’s deemed that for practical reasons they should not live apart, such as in the case of a guide dog for a blind dog or where adult and younger dogs cannot be separated.
  • In divorce cases involving children, the court may rule for the dog to reside with the child. This is because a dog can provide much-needed emotional comfort during what is an already stressful time. 

Who loves the dog more?

The court may permit both parties to express their wishes, hopes and concerns with regard to their pet. Although this expression may be allowed, it’s important to understand that emotion and familiarity are not grounds for ownership, and other factors will make a much bigger impact on the overall outcome.

Declaring ownership within a pre-nup

Some marriages will have a pre-nuptial agreement (pre-nup) in place. A pre-nup is an agreement made and signed prior to the marriage, setting out who owns which assets in the event of a divorce. Generally speaking, if the family pet is mentioned in this document, and as long as the pre-nup wasn’t signed under coercion or force, this will dictate who gets ownership.

An opportunity for shared ownership

It’s common that both parties have an emotional attachment to a dog and therefore both may wish to take ownership. In some more amicable divorces, a couple could decide to share responsibility for the pet which can be arranged around the custody of a child, or new living arrangements and working patterns – or whatever joint arrangements suit both parties.

There are a surprising number of Google searches on this subject every month, showing just how upsetting this issue can be for divorcing couples. While it can be hard to remain devoid of emotion, that’s just how divorce solicitors deal with the issue of pets during a separation. Sad as it is, a pet is simply an object to be shared out in the event of a divorce.

John Roberts is a Partner and Director of Austin Lafferty. John has been with the firm for almost 20 years, with experience in all areas of family law, including divorce and separation, adoption and contact.

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