Family Law expert Joelene Seaton

With Christmas just around the corner, pets of all types might be making their way on the Christmas wish list. Dogs, cats, birds, mice, snakes, fish, guinea pigs and chickens to name a few.

Thanks to COVID-19 and more time spent at home, demand for pets in 2020 has surged.

With pets now becoming increasingly popular in our households, you may be interested to know that these domestic animals have long featured in family law disputes.

Family law expert Joelene Seaton says when it comes to relationship breakdowns some pet owners have gone to great lengths to keep their pets in their lives with parents agreeing to transition between households at the same time as their children.

“Where there are no children, other than the fur babies, ex-spouses occasionally agree to implementing a shared care arrangement for their beloved animals too,” she said.

When it comes to pets and the Family Courts here are some things you might not have known:

  1. In property settlement disputes the Court will approach pets in the same way as any other chattel and the pet’s ownership will be determined by the Court as an issue of ownership of property. One obvious difference between pets and most other chattels though, is that the worth of the pet cannot be measured in monetary terms.   
  • If ex-spouses cannot agree on who keeps the pet, then the Court will decide. Proof of who purchased the pet, who paid for its upkeep or in whose name the pet is registered isn’t necessarily determinative of the issue. In very extreme and protracted disputes, rather than allocate the pet to one party over the other, the Court may even order the destruction of the pet.
  • It is possible to include a clause in a prenuptial agreement which provides for who will retain the pet in the event of separation.
  • Income that is generated by either party from breeding animals can be considered both in terms of assessing contributions during the relationship and assessing income earning capacity in the post-relationship period.
  • Where in cross-examination evidence emerges about the ill treatment of pets by either party, animal welfare agencies may be notified, and the offending party may be liable to prosecution.
  • Harming or threatening to harm a pet can constitute domestic violence. So too can publishing false accusations about an ex-spouse in an effort to damage their reputation in the animal breeding community and their ability to pursue such interest.

Joelene says that if you’re lucky enough this Christmas to receive the gift of a pet, spare a thought for those that will become collateral damage of a relationship breakdown.

“As an avid dog lover, I will leave you with the apt words of Roger Caras, “dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole’,” she says.

“Season’s Greetings to you and your sentient creatures.”