England is famous for being a nation of dog-lovers. It’s perhaps unsurprising that what happens to man’s best friend in the event of a relationship breakdown is becoming an increasing cause for concern for many.
Recent research by the charity Dog’s Trust has found that over a quarter of dog-owners in relationships said that their dog would be the most important thing for them in the event of a breakup, whilst 20% said deciding who would get the dog would be as stressful as deciding the arrangements for children. Particularly concerning was the finding that there had been a 290% increase over several years in the number of dogs being rehomed as a result of relationship breakdowns.
Who Gets The Dog?
Some couples are surprised to find out that if there is a disagreement as to who should get the dog on divorce, the law is not obliged to take into account what is in the dog’s best interests or welfare, but instead will consider it as it does any other item of property. The general legal principle of ownership is that whoever paid for an item is the owner and this applies to animals as well. If the couple are unmarried, that will generally be the beginning and end of it. As a result, it’s a good idea to keep hold of any documentation relating to the purchase or ownership of the dog.
However, the court’s powers are more wide ranging on divorce. Although judges can often be reluctant to spend too much time dealing with any dispute about a pet, it can be a key sticking point for some couples. Whilst often the dog can remain in the possession of the original owner, it may be possible for a judge to make a decision to give the dog to one over the other even if they did not initially pay for it. The person who cared for the dog the most is often the person who will have ownership following divorce. This can also have wider financial implications if, for instance, the owner requires financial support from their former spouse to maintain and care for the dog after the divorce.
Prenups for Pooches
An acrimonious dispute about a dog can often be prevented by entering into a pre-nuptial agreement before the couple marry. This is particularly a good idea where one of the couple have owned their dog before the relationship started. Whilst pre-nuptial agreements are not automatically legally binding, they can hold significant weight on divorce and are likely to be upheld if they meet specific requirements. These include both of the couple taking independent legal advice, the agreement being signed at least 28 days in advance of the marriage, and mutual disclosure of all relevant financial circumstances. The provisions also need to be considered fair.
If these requirements are met and the agreement provides for the future ownership of a dog, whether one cared for by the couple at the time of the marriage or acquired in the future, then that is likely to be the outcome in the event of a separation. Such agreements can also be made even after a marriage has taken place, and are known as “post-nuptial” agreements.
A Better Way?
Even if a couple don’t have a pre or post-nuptial agreement, a lengthy court battle can still be avoided. Reaching agreement without going to court will generally be preferable when considering who will be caring for a dog, particularly given the challenges of ensuring that the changes in the dog’s routine won’t be too distressing. This will be particularly helpful if care will be shared, and so there needs to be communication between the couple in order to agree and maintain a routined schedule that is best for the dog.
There are increasing methods of resolving disputes outside of court. These can include:
- Mediation, in which an independent, trained professional will sit down with the couple to help them reach an agreement as to any issues that need to be resolved.
- Collaborative Law, where each of the couple instruct a qualified collaborative lawyer with the agreement that they will not go to court. There will then be a series of meetings between all four to try and obtain the best outcome for everyone.
It’s also a good idea to check whether your lawyer is a member of Resolution. This is the national association of family lawyers, the members of whom all follow a Code of Practice that promotes a non-confrontational approach to family matters.
As the rights of animals are increasingly scrutinised, it is possible that we will see a shift in the law on divorce that pays greater attention to what is in their best interests. This has already happened in Alaska, for instance, where judges are now required to consider the animal’s well-being when making a decision as to ownership. Many will think that such an approach is overdue. However, for now it is important that any owners of dogs who are concerned as to what will happen in the event of a separation or divorce take legal advice at the earliest opportunity so that they can protect themselves and their canine companion.