A pet is not just an animal; it can be your best friend, companion and an integral part of the family.

Pets can be an important part of life and, consequently, of marriage. It is said that couples who own a pet have closer relationships and are more satisfied in their marriage. Pets can help to reduce stress between spouses, especially when they are going through a difficult time. A pet’s companionship and affection creates a calming effect in a marriage and it can also be a source of entertainment and increased fun in the home. It is therefore no surprise that spouses would want to include a pet in their family for either themselves and/or the children of the family.

The difficulty with having a pet appears when a marriage breaks down and the tough decision of what arrangements are made for the pet have to be decided. Despite being an integral part of a family or a best friend, pets are treated as chattels under family law. A chattel is described as an item that is personal property and is movable. For animal lovers, this means that a pet is given the same treatment as any other personal property, such as the fridge freezer, bed and clothing.

As such, when deciding who keeps the family pet, the court is likely to consider who paid for the pet, who has legal ownership of the pet and who pays for the pet insurance.

If your marriage has broken down irretrievably and there is a pet involved then the following options are available to you in determining the arrangements for your pet:

1. Speak to your spouse- your first course of action should be to speak to your spouse to try to reach an agreement.

2. Mediation- if an agreement cannot be reached between your spouse and you then consider involving a neutral third party who has experience in disputes involving pets.

3. Instruct a solicitor- if mediation does not bring about fruitful results, then consider instructing a solicitor to write to your spouse on a more formal basis.

4. Arbitration- if the first three options fail then you can consider arbitration which is an alternative to court proceedings. A binding outcome can be produced and the process can be much more efficient than court proceedings.

5. Court proceedings- the court has the power to make orders regarding chattels, i.e. pets, but proceedings should only be initiated as a last resort as court proceedings are likely to be disproportionate given the time and costs involved.

To avoid this difficult situation, spouses can consider entering into a Pet-Nup as a preventive measure in the event of a divorce. A Pet-Nup can set out the right of ownership and who will have retain the pet on divorce as well as other arrangements. The law does not currently recognise Pet-Nups as being legally binding, however, the court is likely to take such an agreement into account.

More and more separating couples are looking at creative ways to manage pets on divorce, whether it be to share the care of the pet or to have a clear understanding of who will have care of the pet in the event of separation and why.

If your marriage has broken down and there is a pet involved or you are considering welcoming a pet into your marriage then our specialist family law team can assist you in agreeing the arrangements for your pet or putting measures into place to ensure that any potential disputes arising in the future can be avoided.