Loving and Leaving - Pets and Divorce

What would happen to your pets if you decided to divorce? No matter your opinion (whether high or low) of the domestic cat or dog, the reality is that when it comes to divorce they are part of the equation for many couples. In Australia, a pet crazy nation, we have about 2 million more pets than people.  That’s a lot of pets.

In 2013 there were 3.3 million pet cats and 4.2 million pet dogs.  It’s no wonder there’s almost a full grocery aisle dedicated to pet food and needs.  A report commissioned by the Animal Health Alliance, called ‘a state of the pet nation’, found that owners often trust their pets more than their friends and 90% considered their pet as part of the family.

Who Gets To Keep The Pets?

So when families break down and separation occurs, who gets to keep Rusty, Monty, Coco, Trixie, Milo or Otis?

Unless you’ve been under a log it’s been hard to avoid the fiasco over Pistol and Boo – dogs owned by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Until recently Depp and Heard seemed happily married, but now have split and regardless of who’s done what to whom, who will get the dogs?  If they had a pre-nuptial agreement then that may help to settle the decision, but if not, unless one accedes to the others wishes then there will be a ‘fight’ over Pistol and Boo.pets, divorce

In Australia, the family law courts do not have specific provisions as to what happens to family pets when there is a breakdown in a couple’s relationship. Like in many other countries, pets are considered property, just like a lounge, car or toaster.  But unlike those inanimate objects, pets (animals) are protected.

Although many couples find an amicable way forward in who has responsibility for a pet, sometimes the pet is used either as a pawn or as a tool of revenge.  Warring couples are drawing on revenge tactics that include killing, strangling and maiming pets. “It happens fairly regularly where couples split up,” said Australian Divorce Blog author Stephen Page. “Many people have pets and it is very easy to fight over animals. There is nothing worse than having a woman and kids in a refuge who go back because the animals are being mistreated.”

It’s not surprising that the number of divorce cases involving a fight over animals is on the rise, especially when one in three Australian marriages end up in divorce.  The Family Law Act considers violence against animals as a form of family violence.  This allows judges to act against litigants who haul animals into a divorce fight.

There are many examples in the Family Court of animals being mistreated.  One was the beating of a bull-mastiff in 2012.  The dog had ripped some latticework from the side of a house and was beaten by a father in front of a child and mother. The father threatened to “cut the dog’s neck” while punching it in front of his screaming son.

Mr Page said property settlements often involved lawyers and litigants meeting at the marital home to split belongings, including the animals. “People don’t want to go all the way to court and spent $50,000 to argue over animals, so it is usually decided that one person is closer to the pets,” Mr Page said. But it doesn’t always go to plan and people can be cruel.  In one case, an ex-husband learned about the death of his dog well after the fact.  His ex-wife had organised for the family dog to be ‘put-down’ before the property settlement.

In the mess of a broken relationship, working out who keeps the cat, dog, bunny or budgie looms large. A study of 1000 people in July last year found one in 12 lost their pet after separation or divorce. Many mistakenly believed the Family Court would make shared custody arrangements for their pets. It may even be worth both parties signing “pet pre-nups” to avoid such conflict. A family pet can become a bargaining chip in some cases. Relationships Australia manager Sue Yorston says,  “A pet is part of setting up home together, of establishing yourself as a couple, so when the relationship breaks down there is grief for the loss of what might have been. . . The pet can become part of the dispute, part of the power play … who has invested more time in the pet? Who sees the pet? Who walks the pet? Who plays with the pet more? It can be a tool for hurting another person.”

A case in San Diego, Perkins v Perkins, had a woman spend $US146,000 in legal fees fighting for sole custody of Gigi, a greyhound cross. US courts are slowly accepting that pets are more valuable than a monetary pricetag.

pets, divorceKeith Akers, co-author of the book Humanising Animals: Civilising People, says Australian courts have refused to make any similar “pet parenting” orders.  “While two human partners separating may see the family pet as a sentient being, the Family Court treats animals as goods or chattels,” he says. Dr Akers, argues courts should be more flexible in deciding who gets the pets. “I can’t see anything wrong with using the same approach as courts do with children. If a child suffers as a result of their parents separating and only being able to live with one of them, I would have thought the same would apply to a dog.”

In regional NSW several years ago, an old golden retriever ran to the ex-husband rather than the ex-wife when called one day on a soccer field with a mediator. Family lawyer Heather McKinnon said, “They accepted the decision the animal made and, in the end, it was a way of letting go.” Fighting over who gets the pets is becoming more common at mediation, says McKinnon. “I’ve been in practice for 30 years and I have definitely seen a change in the way the culture looks at animals.”

Often it comes down to what is in the pet’s best interests: who has the biggest yard or time to care for the animal.  Ex-partners often agree the pets should stay or move with the children if there are children involved.

Mediation is something that we encourage so that the cost and pain of a court battle might be avoided.  To speak to one of our experienced family lawyers then please contact us today for a free, 10-minute phone consultation.