When you separate or divorce, there are many practical matters to sort out, not least parenting matters, finances, and housing. But it can also be a huge challenge when it comes to deciding who takes responsibility, or ownership, of the family dog. Disputes over who owns the dog are becoming increasingly common and can add to the animosity. So how do you work out who owns the dog if you separate?

Is a dog considered a possession?

A dog is viewed by the legal system as a “chattel” and therefore is treated as property owned in the same way as a car, jewellery, or a piece of furniture. To most people, a dog is a much-loved, living, breathing family member, which should not be treated in the same way as a possession that can easily be replaced, but this is not how it is generally seen by a court.

What happens to the dog if we divorce?

Because the court treats animals as personal belongings, on divorce it will simply look to the legal ownership of the dog when deciding who it should be with. The welfare of the animal is not something the court considers when making decisions about assets and personal possessions.

What happens to the dog if we aren’t married?

The ownership of a pet for couples who are not married or in a civil partnership falls under the jurisdiction of Civil Law rather than family law. So if there was a dispute over ownership, then you would need to make a civil claim to the court in order to assert and prove ownership. A cohabitation agreement can regulate how you will live together and set out what happens to any assets and belongings when you separate. This can also include how a dog will be looked after and who retains ownership in the event you separate.

What does the court look at when deciding who owns the dog?

There is no single piece of evidence that conclusively proves who owns a dog. The court will make a decision by looking at the following things:

  • Who purchased the dog/evidence of purchase, such as bank statements showing the payment
  • Whose name is recorded on the microchip database and/or Kennel Club registration documents
  • Whose name is recorded on any pet insurance
  • Veterinary records
  • Who usually takes care of the dog

Court is not the best place to resolve disputes over animals. Family mediation is a much less stressful and expensive way to resolve disagreements surrounding pet ownership, and it also helps couples to work together to find a solution that works for all parties.

What if both parties paid for the dog?

If both of you paid for the dog, the court will usually decide that it should remain in the family home. The judge will not sort out visiting arrangements or financial support as it would with a child. However, when calculating the needs of the party who keeps the dog, the court may make financial provision for its care, such making allowances for vet bills or boarding costs at kennels.

What should I consider when deciding who gets the dog if we separate?

If you would like to try to reach an agreement with your ex, whether that is together or with professional help via mediation, here are some things for you to consider:

  • Consider the needs of the dog

If your dog needs daily walks and exercise, consider working out a schedule with your ex that provides the dog with the care they need. Perhaps one of you works from home more than the other, and can dedicate more time to the dog’s daily care. Think about how the costs of the dog’s care such as food or vet bills will be paid?

  • What type of arrangement works best for you

Could you share custody of the dog with your ex, with one having the dog for certain days or months of the year? Would it be stressful for your dog if it is constantly moving between two households, and therefore agreeing one home may be in the dogs best interests? Perhaps one of you has full day-to-day care, whilst the other visits, on a similar footing to that of contact with children. What will happen to the dog when one of you goes on holiday? Will the other person be happy to look after it?

  • Try to make sure you both have access to the dog
  • Have an open dialogue about the arrangement, listen to each other’s concerns and try to negotiate a compromise that works for both of you and the dog
  • Put the arrangement in writing

This can be done as part of a separation agreement and ensures that both parties are clear on the details of the arrangement. It can also help to avoid misunderstandings and disputes in the future.

How can I avoid a dispute over who gets the dog if we separate?

An easy way to avoid future arguments over who gets the dog if you separate is to have a pre or post-nuptial agreement in place setting out who gets what if the marriage/civil partnership ends. Where unmarried couples are living together, the couple could enter into a cohabitation agreement. Given that people who live together have fewer rights than married couples or those in civil partnerships, in the absence of an agreement, who gets the dog will simply be down to who paid for it.

Dogs can be territorial and become attached to their home and surroundings. Moving can unsettle children and adults, but we rarely consider the impact it may have on our much loved dog. If one party is staying in the family home, the best solution for the dog may be to stay in situ too.

If you have more than one dog, the answer is not necessarily to have one each. The dogs are likely to have a strong attachment and separating them can be extremely traumatic. Again, it may be best for them to stay together in the family home.

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