Family lawyers have seen an increase in dog custody battles in recent years. 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. This means that 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 possessions. Dogs are an increasingly important part in people’s lives and the increase in media and online forums about dog custody battles serves to normalise the issue and gives people the confidence to address it.
Paws for thought
Dogs are so important to people because of the level of attachment they have with it, the dog becomes a member of the family, the adult owners have maternal instincts for it, and children especially, become emotionally attached to it. In cases which don’t involve children, the dog can sometimes be like a surrogate child. A survey illustrates that a fifth of separating couples found deciding who gets the dog ‘as stressful’ as who should be the main carer for the children.
The celebrity dog custody battles which are featuring in the media are creating more widespread appreciation of the issue and perhaps even giving divorcing couples increased confidence to include consideration of their pet within the legal proceedings without fear of undermining the other issues by its, considered by some ridiculous, inclusion.
Before the celebrity custody battles began appearing in the news it was still the case that couples had the issue to deal with. All dog-lovers will appreciate that a dog is often central to the family unit; particularly for those couples who do not have, or cannot have, children. The world we live in today is hugely influenced by our love for all things ‘celebrity’ so it is not surprising that celebrities have sparked this new ‘trend’.
Whilst pre-nups are still not binding in the UK, its terms will have a substantial impact on the judge’s decision in a divorce settlement case. Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act requires the court in a divorce case to consider factors, 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 in reality 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’, or personal possession, meaning there is no reason why the pre-nup (or ‘Pre-Pup!) cannot effectively agree arrangements regarding the dog.
A third of couples have said that they would consider signing a Pre-Pup.
Bone of contention
There is no dog equivalent to the Children Act 1989, no legal mechanism for a court to make orders, such as contact orders, for a dog like it does with children. However, at Blacks, we know how important our canine friends are to people and take the issue seriously. We would advise our client against Court involvement on the issue for the above mentioned reasons. Our first approach would be to suggest that the couple attend mediation (see case study) . Once an agreement is reached, this can be recorded in a legal document and signed. If mediation did not work, then we would suggest that the couple use arbitration, whereby an independent decision maker would make a decision about their dog, based upon what would be best for the dog itself. They could even obtain a dog psychologist’s report. This approach ensures that the dog and the best interests of the dog are kept at the heart of the issue.
Partner Family Department
0113 227 9233