An aspect of separation and divorce that is rarely talked about with any level of seriousness is what happens to the family pets? As anyone with a cat, dog, turtle, axolotl or miniature elephant will know, pets are more than secondary to a family life, in fact they form part of a family's dynamics and may even be viewed as another family member. For children, pets can be constant and anchoring presences who keep confidences while offering unconditional love and affection at a time when they may question their parents' love for them. In short, family pets may offer comfort and companionship during a tumultuous time in a way that no human can.

The main focus during a divorce is sorting out the arrangements for the children, and coming to an agreement over the financial settlements. The welfare of pets, and where and with whom the pets shall live is sometimes low on the list of priorities or may become a heavily politicised point of contention. Yet the fate of pets is never a consideration for the family courts.

Solicitors are often asked to draw up "contact schedules" for pets, and there are cases where owners have agreed maintenance for the pets, mainly to help cover food and veterinary bills. This reflects a simple truth: people emotionally invest in their pets and develop long-lasting, deep emotional bonds with them. A case in point: one couple spent so long arguing over which one of them would keep the family rabbit that the poor rabbit died long before the divorce proceedings were concluded.

Pets in divorce – some illustrative case studies

It's not unusual for disputes about pets during a divorce to end up in court.

In RK v RK [2011] EWHC 3910 (Fam) as part of the application the wife sought an order that would give her ownership of one of the family pets; she was not successful in her attempt, and the dog remained with the husband.

In 2008, in S v S [2008] EWHC 519 (Fam) the wife was granted £50,000 a year in maintenance to help her maintain her four horses after claiming that they were "her family". Her husband tried to appeal the order but the appeal was dismissed.

More recently, Amber Heard secured custody of the family dogs, Pistol and Boo, during a bitter divorce battle with her now ex-husband, Johnny Depp.

I have listened to numerous pet owners devastated at the thought of not being able to see their beloved pet each day. I have also heard of some dreadful incidents where an angry, embittered spouse has deliberately sought to have healthy animals euthanized or have the pets removed from the family home and taken to another location, simply to spite their spouse.

Currently, pets are only legally considered to be "chattels" (belongings) in a divorce, and so their welfare considerations aren't considered by the courts to any great extent.

However, things are changing the world over. For example, in Alaska an amendment (house Bill no 147) to the state's divorce statutes has just become enacted. It requires courts to take "into consideration the well-being of the animal" and gives judges the explicit power to assign joint custody of pets. The amendment also allows courts to include pets in domestic violence protection orders, and holds owners financially responsible for costs associated with removing a pet from a home due to neglect or abuse.

The legal changes in Alaska are a very welcome move and hopefully augurs well for the future in the UK. Currently, pets in our islands are afforded some legal protection but under separate legislation and not as part of family law. Could we see a change in the law here? It's unlikely, but who knows?


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