I have dealt with several cases where the biggest bone of contention (excuse the pun) was the family pet. In a particularly acrimonious matter I had suggested to my client that it would be cheaper to buy a new cat than instruct me to keep fighting for it. My suggestion did not go down well and I swiftly learnt that people consider pets to be a part of the family.
The court treats a pet the same way it would a sofa or painting; it’s simply property or a chattel as far as the court is concerned.
If the parties are not married it may well look to who bought the pet and who pays for its upkeep, and costs such as vet’s bills and food may be taken in to consideration. If the pet was gifted then it generally belongs to the recipient.
If parties are married and can’t agree on how to share chattels then the court will get involved, and will often direct a list of items in dispute to be drawn up, with parties taking turns to pick an item they want. The courts really do not like these types of disputes and the cost and stress of litigation can be vast, so you would be wise to avoid it if possible.
Ant McPartlin and his ex-wife share their dog and I’ve come across people who do this, two weeks each alternating. If you can cope with contact with your former partner, then that is a good way to do it (it doesn’t work so well for cats though!).
You cannot make an application to court for ‘custody’ of a pet and a judge won’t decide how to share the pet’s time between you. You can’t apply for ‘access’ to a pet.
There has been much in the press recently about ‘pet-nups’. I have never done or seen one but I have recently prepared a Cohabitation Agreement that specifically set out who owned the dog. It is worth thinking about what would happen upon a relationship breakdown, to avoid arguments and heartbreak at that time.
If you and your partner can’t agree on who should get the pet, you might want to try mediation to see if a mediator can help you reach an agreement. Sarah French in our Southampton office is a qualified and very experienced mediator.
To return to my ‘tail’ at the top, I ‘won’ the cats for my client, but she never collected them. In that case I don’t think it was ever about the cats, but the principle. Principles are fine but they can be expensive!