Pets, break-ups and divorce in the UK - who gets the pet?

8 August 2023 - 4 min read
Two black and tan dachshunds lie in a bed facing away from each other

Divorce is an emotionally challenging process, and when there are beloved pets involved the situation can become even more complicated. 

For many people, pets are considered part of the family - but legally, they are classified as 'chattels,' personal property owned by the person who acquired them. 

Yeah - that sounds a bit complicated.

To clear things up on this particularly sensitive topic, we spoke to Shannon Park, an expert Chartered Legal Executive from the renowned UK law firm Irwin Mitchell

Shannon gave us the low-down on all sorts of questions surrounding pets and divorce; including pet custody, whether pets are considered assets, who pays for the pet after a divorce, and how to navigate this difficult situation with care and consideration for all parties involved.

Who gets to keep the family pet?

As Shannon explains, the question of who gets to keep the family pet after divorce hinges on several factors. 

Although pets are cherished members of the household, legally, they fall under the category of chattels. 

“A chattel is personal property that is owned by the person(s) who bought it or received it as a gift. In those circumstances the person who bought the ‘chattel’ is likely to keep it,” says Shannon. 

In most cases, the best approach is for the divorcing parties to come to a mutual agreement about the pet's future living arrangements.

However, it's not uncommon for disagreements to arise when one party wishes to keep the pet without any financial exchange or expects the other spouse to contribute to the pet's upkeep. 

These sorts of conflicts can exacerbate the already emotional and stressful divorce process.

Are pets considered an "asset" in a divorce?

While pets may hold deep sentimental value for the couple, the court holds a less emotional view - and typically treats them as assets during divorce proceedings. 

For instance, in the case of high-value pets - like certain breeds of dogs or cats - their value can become a significant aspect of the negotiations. In these instances, the value of the pet must be agreed upon by both parties.

“If a valuation is contested, like any other asset, a joint expert can be instructed to provide a valuation,” notes Shannon. “This valuation may be significantly impacted by factors like how the pet is bred, their breed, competing history and if there is any opportunity to breed.”

Shannon then goes on to add that the divorcing couple could decide whether to sell the pet and divide - or, whether one of the parties keeps ownership of the pet and how this would be accounted for in respect of division of the overall assets. 

“This would form a significant part of the negotiations between the two individuals, and it is really important that expert legal advice is sought.”

Who pays for the pet after divorce?

The responsibility of paying for the pet usually lies with the party that retains ownership. 

However, Shannon did point out that there are exceptions where courts may consider the cost of maintaining the pet as a factor in determining spousal maintenance. 

She refers to a landmark case, S v S [2008], which demonstrated that if one spouse's income is sufficient to maintain an aspect of the other spouse's lifestyle integral to the marriage, such as caring for pets, then the court may consider it reasonable to include these costs in a maintenance order.

Making a plan for the future

To safeguard assets and inheritance, Shannon suggests considering Pre or Post-Nuptial Agreements for married couples or Cohabitation Agreements for unmarried partners. 

“Whilst most individuals will only include certain assets, there is no reason as to why you cannot include your pet and have your companion ring-fenced and put in place a plan for what will happen in the event of a separation.”

Is there a way to split custody of the pet equally?

Certainly, at the time of separation, couples can discuss and agree on a shared custody arrangement for the pet. 

The welfare of the pet should be the primary concern, and both parties should work together to create a nurturing environment for their furry companion, even if it means sharing time and responsibilities equally.

Can someone legally take back a pet from an ex after a break-up or divorce?

We’ve all seen Legally Blonde - especially the scene where Paulette rocks up to her ex’s caravan to take back her treasured pup, Rufus.

However, the reality is a little trickier and requires a lot more planning.

According to Shannon, specialised legal advice is crucial before taking any action to retrieve a family pet. 

As mentioned earlier, pets are considered chattels owned by the person who acquired them. If evidence can be provided that the pet was originally bought by one party and gifted to the other, then the rightful owner may legally remove the pet. 

However, if there is clear evidence that the pet was gifted to the other party, then it legally belongs to the recipient.

Pets are family, so they’re affected too

Divorce can be a tumultuous time for everyone involved, including the beloved family pet. While they hold a special place in our hearts, legally, they are treated as assets, adding complexity to the already-quite-stressful divorce process. 

To ensure a fair and compassionate outcome for the pet, couples should seek expert legal advice, consider Pre or Post-Nuptial Agreements, and prioritise the pet's welfare when making custody arrangements. 

By approaching the situation with empathy and understanding, couples can make the best decisions for their furry family members amidst the challenging circumstances of divorce.

Lewis Martins
Communities marketer

Lewis has worked in pet health since 2017. Before joining ManyPets in 2021, he led content production at VetForum and PetsApp. Lewis has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest vet groups and suppliers to write educational articles for vets and pet parents. His Instagram feed is 60% dogs, 40% cats.