The Edinburgh firm says that many couples are unaware of the legal position when it comes to pets during divorce cases, and some even expect to fight for custody of their dogs and cats if the split with their partner is acrimonious. However, Gibson Kerr stresses that these couples should be aware that pets are treated the same as other mutually-owned property such as cars, money or property in the eyes of the law – and the welfare of the animals is not considered when it comes to deciding which partner will retain ownership of their pet.
Fiona Rasmusen, partner with Gibson Kerr, said: “Divorce can be a hugely stressful time for people, especially when it comes to dividing mutual assets. Emotions run high and it often leads to bitter fights between partners for their possessions. “In some cases, the couple may have a pet that has been with them since the start of their relationship. They may be a couple who don’t have any children and instead, they consider their dog or cat to be part of the family. “In the United States, you can see full blown custody battles for pets and there have been numerous high profile cases where this has happened – particularly in celebrity divorces.
However, the situation in the UK is very different. “Over here, pets are treated no differently to any other assets that a couple may have gathered during their marriage – such as their property or any mutual savings – and therefore they are split equally between the two partners. “In practice this means that one half of the couple usually agrees to take responsibility of the pet following the separation The welfare of the animal is not normally considered and if both partners want to keep the pet, they must reach an agreement with each other just like they would do with their property or other possessions. “If a pet is particularly expensive – such as a pedigree dog – then the partner who does not get possession of it will need to receive suitable financial compensation. However, if neither partner is willing to compromise – or if neither of them wants to keep the pet – they may have to sell it and split the money between them.
“We’re seeing more cases in Scotland and the rest of the UK where couples quarrel about animals and there is a lot of confusion among about partners over how they can keep hold of their pets. It’s important for people who enter into divorce proceedings to realise what the legal position is on their animals before they start deciding how their assets will be divided.”
In the wake of a number of recent celebrity break-ups that involved legal tussles over ownership of their pets, some family law companies in England have been advising couples to make specific prenuptial agreements on their animals to avoid any unwanted stress if they end up separating. Fiona adds that this can be a sensible way to avoid unwanted stress during a separation. She added: “Of course no one wants to be thinking about divorce or separation when they get married but if they have an expensive or valued pet, then a prenuptial agreement is certainly an option to consider. It would ensure that there would be no fight for possession of the pet if the worst happens, and leave both partners free to decide on how to divide their other possessions.
“From a legal position, the welfare of the animal is not considered in these cases and the animals can often end up being left with animal charities rather than being re-homed properly. A pre-nuptial agreement could help to provide peace of mind that, even if the relationship breaks down in the future, their animal’s future will be safeguarded.