Who keeps the Cat?
When married couples separate, they are initially faced with quite a lot of uncertainty – the parties will have questions about their children's arrangements, their finances and their home.
It seems to be increasingly common, having discussed this topic with other family lawyers, to find that many couples will have questions about their pets as well. Who will keep the cat or the dog?
This topic is rather divisive amongst practitioners – there are bigger issues to focus on and argument over the couple's four-legged friends should not detract from financial issues or the arrangements for the parties' children. However, it is likely that many pet-owners will want to ensure that there is an agreement about what happens in the interim or once a settlement has been reached, as part of the practical issues that they need to tackle. Others would point out that if it is one of the concerns of their client, lawyers should help their client to resolve this issue.
It is important to remember that, often emotions are running high when couples tackle this issue and so a constructive, cost-proportionate approach will help greatly in the long-term.
Pets will be treated, in law, as chattels in a divorce case and (probably quite rightly) the law for children's arrangements is not in any way mimicked here. For example, there is no presumption that it would be best for a dog or a cat to spend time with both parties and there is not a pet-equivalent of the welfare checklist for children.
Assuming that the pets in question are not financially valuable (such as a Crufts finalist or a horse in its prime), the problem faced by practitioners is largely practical rather than a financial point and will usually include consideration of who cared for the animal, paid for its vets bills and food, or purchased it in the first place.
This can often seem unpalatable to pet owners.
There may be a simple solution. Some of my clients have agreed to each keep a cat if there are more than one, or have agreed for the dog to stay in the same home (or move between homes) with the children, for the children's benefit. In other cases, this issue has been 'the last straw' and it has been tricky to reach an agreement.
In the absence of agreement, and considering that this can often be a practical issue, perhaps clients should consider whether this is a point that they could discuss at mediation, even if this issue is dealt with in isolation? This has the benefit of being constructive and a lot more cost-effective than an ongoing 'trial' by solicitor correspondence. If this point cannot be agreed, the parties could have the matter determined once and for all, by an arbitrator.
It may even be the case, that married couples will consider including this information as one of the points in a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement, where the pets in question are of particular sentimental or financial value to avoid the potential for a dispute in the event that they were to separate.