Disputes over pet ownership when a relationship breaks down are sadly on the rise.

Whilst it is fairly common for couples to enter into an agreement detailing what should happen to their financial assets should they separate, few consider what should happen to their pets.

Disputes surrounding pets can be extremely costly and upsetting. Presently, there is no law in England and Wales that details what should happen to a pet in the event of a separation. Whilst to many people a pet is a much loved member of the family with feelings, within the eyes of the law a pet is seen as a ‘chattel’. This means it will be seen as an object, like a car or a piece of jewelry. However, that does not prevent disputes surrounding the ownership of a pet should you and your partner separate.

Entering into a carefully, specially prepared document, sometimes called a pet – nup, can help avoid heartache. Whilst a pet -nup is not automatically legally binding, it will hold weight if a dispute arises following separation. A pet – nup can cover points such as vet care/bills, microchipping, general and specific costs associated with the pet and the pet’s living arrangements. More importantly, the document can include a provision as to what should happen to the pet should your relationship break down.

Pet – nups are an excellent measure to ensure your pet is cared for in the event of a separation. Unfortunately, many pets are rehomed because separating couples cannot reach a decision. A pet – nup avoids confusion and dispute should you not agree as to a way forward.

If you do not have a pet – nup and you find yourself in disagreement with your ex – partner, firstly you should try and come to a mutual agreement. In the English courts, it is largely expected that separating couples should come to an agreement between themselves about pet custody and the expenses associated with their animals.

In the first instance, you can approach your ex – partner and try to negotiate. If it is not appropriate or you feel uncomfortable negotiating directly with your ex – partner, then you can also instruct a solicitor to write to your ex – partner on your behalf. However, such action can be costly and can unfortunately create a hostile environment. Family mediation can be an invaluable tool and a less contentious approach to resolving the dispute than instructing solicitors.

Should you be unable to reach a decision and in the event of a dispute, you may wish to consider making an application to court. The court’s approach will be the same as for any other asset and the proportionality of the costs of litigation needs to be considered. Unless the animal in question is a prize race horse, the costs of litigation will likely far outweigh the cost of the pet.

The court will determine who the owner is through evidence such as who bought the pet, whose name is recorded on the microchip database or pet insurance or who normally takes care of the pet. But there is no single piece of evidence that conclusively proves who owns the pet and ownership can change over time. Unlike disputes involving children, the issues of the welfare of the animal are very unlikely to be considered, the focus will instead be on ownership.

Wherever possible, it is most practical when you purchase your pet to enter in a pet – nup to avoid the possibility of stressful and expensive court proceedings later on.