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Don’t forget the pets during divorce

Loss of status for family pets can lead to unnecessary heartache, but couples can work together to protect their pet.

With pet custody disputes on the increase, more thought and attention needs to be paid to the care of our furry and feathered friends during divorce proceedings, according to a network of Scotland’s leading collaborative lawyers.

Almost 50% of members of Consensus Collaboration Scotland (CCS), a network of 180 family lawyers that promote a collaborative approach to divorce, have handled divorce cases in the last year in which pets have become a hotly contested issue.

According to Anne Dick, a member of CCS and a partner with Family Law Matters (Scotland) LLP, it’s a worrying trend - for the humans as well as the animals. “According to the law, pets are possessions, but most of us don’t see it that way, and rightly so. While the language in law may be cold and dispassionate, we more often refer to our pets in softer terms – relating to care, comfort, welfare, protection and custody – not the way you’d talk about a CD collection or a piece of furniture. Even though this is the case, in a contentious divorce, much of that can go out the window, and many pets get the rough end of the stick.”

Some of the ways pets suffer during divorce proceedings are:

• Being put up for adoption where no agreement can be made about their future living arrangements, or where an agreement about the cost of their care cannot be reached between parties;

• Being used as ‘bait’, by parents arguing over custody of children. During a divorce, children sometimes see the family pet as their main ally, and in the parent’s eyes, where the dog or cat goes, the kids want to go too.

• In divorce cases where domestic abuse is apparent, it’s not uncommon for the abuse to be meted out on the pet too.

Anne continues: “In general, people love their pets very much, and they are important family members. However, during divorce proceedings their status sometimes becomes that of just another possession, and this can cause anxiety for the pets, other family members and the separating couple too. The loss of status can also lead to mistreatment. While the law technically sees pets as possessions, couples can make provision for them in their separation agreement, in the same way that they would for children, and we encourage them to try to work together to make this happen. After all, a pet’s owner is a much better judge of what is good for them than the law.”

According to CCS, couples can ensure protection of their beloved pets by trying to remember that they are so much more than mere chattels, and dealing with the issues at the time when a separation agreement is drawn up:

• Think about what would be best for the pet. Is one partner keeping the family home while the other is moving to a flat, or going abroad? Where would the pet be most comfortable?

• Who has spent more time caring for the animal?

• If the pet is to live with one partner, can the other visit? Go for walkies?

• What are the lifetime costs of keeping the pet, and can they be dealt with in the separation agreement?

• What would happen in an emergency?

In some cases, where an agreement has not been reached, the courts have handed over ownership to one party as a way of breaking deadlock. However, successful agreements have seen shared custody and responsibility for care of cats and dogs, as well as pythons and ponies – and clear agreements relating to the financial burden of having a family pet.

Unlike with children, there are no standard procedures within the courts for domestic animals. As such, each case should be looked at by owners, and by the law, from a common-sense perspective rather than one of value and the relationship between the pets and their owners, or any children, should be the crucial factor at the heart of any dispute.

If you’d like more information about this topic, or collaborative divorce, please get in touch by emailing info@consensus-scotland.com