Dog custody battles: what are my rights and who has ownership?
A dog is for life, not just for lockdown
In the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a huge surge of 120% in online searches about getting a puppy. There have been concerns from dog charities such as The Dogs Trust that the rise in those acquiring a dog may be followed by a rise in people giving up their new pets when normality returns.
Family Lawyers have seen an increase in dog custody battles and more so recently, throughout the pandemic with a spike in break up and divorces. The saying a ‘dog is for life’ does not sit easily with the fact that the life of a dog outlives the average marriage or relationship and a pandemic. As a result, more and more couples are faced with the agonising decision of who gets to keep the dog upon the breakdown of the marriage/civil partnership/relationship.
More people have pets than ever before and owners feel that their pets, dogs especially, are part of the family rather than assets. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that 44% of households have pets. Dogs are an increasingly important part in people’s lives, more so in difficult circumstances surrounding COVID-19.
Howl I ever live without you?
Dogs and pets in general are important to people because of the level of attachment they have with them, the pet is part of the family, the adult owners have maternal instincts for it, and children especially, become emotionally attached to it. For those who do not have or cannot have children, the dog is often a surrogate child. Sadly 10% of people said they had lost a pet during a breakup with a partner, with more than 5% saying they had to work out visiting hours with an ex.
This issue has also been highlighted in the media, with celebrity pet custody battles often appearing in the news.
Pre-pups and their pet-tential!
Couples can save themselves the heartache of losing shared pets by arranging a ‘pet-nuptial’ / ‘pre-pup’ agreement regarding future separation. Whilst pre-nups are not always legally binding in the UK, its terms will help have a substantial impact on the judge’s decision in a divorce settlement case. Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 requires the court to consider factors in divorce, including the needs of the children of a family, as a priority over the terms of a pre-nup, effectively preventing a pre-nup from conclusively dealing with affairs regarding children.
Whilst a dog is a living being and often regarded (and treated!) like a child of the family, in law it is treated the same as any other ‘asset’, meaning there is no reason why the pre-pup cannot effectively agree arrangements regarding the dog. However, there is no dog equivalent to the Children Act 1989. The court therefore has no legal mechanism to make orders for contact for a dog like it does with children.
It’s the leash we can do
We know how important our canine friends are to couples and take the issue seriously here at Blacks. The best solution is to settle dog custody outside of court, and to come to a mutual decision together. We would suggest mediation which can be recorded in a legal document and signed.
If mediation is not for you, then we would suggest that the couple use arbitration, whereby an independent decision maker would decide on the ownership of the pet, based upon what would be best for the pet itself. They could even obtain a dog’s psychologist’s report ensuring your dog’s best interest. If you are going through divorce proceedings and a decision still cannot be made, ultimately the judge will make this.