When a couple separate, whether they have been married or in a de facto relationship, they usually need to resolve how to divide their property. How are family pets treated?
There is no reference to animals in the Family Law Act 1975, but pets are treated by the Family Court as property, which means that they will be treated just like other items which are to be divided between the parties.
How are Pets Valued?
Unless the pet is a purebred animal or a show champion, the intrinsic value of a family pet is likely to be low in dollar terms even though its value to the parties might go beyond a money value.
How is Pet Custody Decided?
Courts are reluctant to get involved in lengthy arguments about custody and ownership of pets, so invariably it would always be in the best interests of the parties if they can agree who is to retain any family pets. However in the absence of such agreement, the Family Court will deal with the matter in the same way as it would deal with the allocation of any other property owned by the separating couple who are parties to the dispute. Accordingly, issues as to who purchased the pet, whose name it is registered in or who provides day to day care for the animal will be taken into account. Also relevant would be evidence with respect to who has a connection with the pet and the impact if it is given to the other party. The Court may also consider which party has the best facilities for future care of the pet. Adequate space would clearly be an issue if the pet, is for instance a large dog. The ability to pay for stabling could be an issue if the animal is a horse or a pony.
Is it Possible to Share pet ‘Custody’?
The Family Court can make orders for parties to in effect share custody of a pet. Such orders are however unlikely to be made, unless the orders are agreed to by both parties.
There have been cases dealing with the care of the children (not directly dealing with custody of a pet), where the Family Court has ordered that the family pet travel with a child between the households of separating parents, in order to assist the child in dealing with regular upheaval.
When Children are Involved, so are their Best Interests
If custody or care of any children to the relationship is under consideration, the Family Court is obliged to consider their “best interests” as the paramount consideration. An argument can be made in appropriate circumstances that it may be in the best interests of the children for care of the family pet to be given to the parent with whom the children will live most of the time if it can be shown that doing so will assist their transition at what is likely to be a very traumatic time for them following the breakdown of their parent’s relationship.
Disputes between separating couples over ownership, care and custody of pets are becoming more common and it is likely that the Courts will set out additional principles in future cases as to how such matters are to be handled.
If you require further information, contact Mark Davies
(Disclaimer: The material in this article is of a general nature and intended for information only. It is not intended to be comprehensive and does not constitute legal advice. Any person with a specific legal issue should consult a lawyer.)