Tails you lose: who keeps the dog in a divorce?

By Fiona Kendall, Partner

The recent sad “tail” of a battle brewing between actors Kirsten Stewart and Robert Pattinson for custody of their cross bred pooch is not uncommon.  When couples are splitting up or divorcing who keeps the much-loved canine?

Bear, the rescue dog in question in the above case, may be relieved that the relationship of his owners appears to be back on again – though no doubt oblivious to the legal battle that could have raged over his future. Heartthrob Pattinson was said to be seeking custody of Bear, in contrast to anecdotal evidence suggesting that it’s often the woman who keeps the dog. This is backed up by a busy dog walker in Yorkshire entrusted with keys to almost 100 doggy customers who says the majority of clients are single mums who have custody of the family pet.

Man’s (and woman’s) best friend may pre-date the children or may have been bought for them and has grown up with them.  One partner could be in rented accommodation that won’t allow pets so by default the dog has to stay with the other partner. Parents who feel that the much loved family pet provides some stability for the children decide it should stay at the home where the youngsters spend most of their time.

In America pet custody battles are prevalent with couples going to court over visitation rights and monthly support payments. In fact, 90 US universities offer courses in dog law.

There are likewise high profile canine custody cases in the UK including former English rugby union player Will Carling who reached an out of court agreement with his ex-wife Julia for custody of their black Labrador Biff.

Family lawyers like Jones Myers are sensitive to the significance and importance of family pets in a divorce.  Below are some of the issues we discuss with our clients when such cases arise:

  • Your pooch may be part of the family – but in law the dog is treated like goods and chattels.  It is better to try and reach an amicable decision over who has the dog rather than allowing the fur to fly in a court room.
  • Try to avoid the family dog becoming the focus of confrontation and resentment. For example, one party being unhappy at being left with responsibility for the dog – or another who baulks at their faithful friend sharing a home with their ex’s new partner.
  • In the best interests of the children, consider that pets can be comforting and therapeutic; during a separation or divorce a dog or cat can be a vital ‘comfort blanket’ for them, providing unconditional love, security and an anchor through difficult times.
  • It may be in the best interests of both partners and their pet to include it in a pre-nup or pre-cip (civil partnership) agreement.

If you have any comments, queries or concerns on this common issues, leave a comment below, call the team at Jones Myers on 0113 245 0055 or tweet us on @helpwithdivorce.

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