Who gets the dog? Separation and pets in Australia

So you’ve decided to separate and you’re wondering how to divide your shared assets and go about parenting arrangements when you go your separate ways. But where do your pets fit into this equation? 

By Meghan Read, Graduate Lawyer, Australian Family Lawyers (Canberra)

Although many of us consider our pets our ‘fur babies’, pets are considered property in Australia, and are not dealt with in the same nature as children when separating. They are considered as part of the property settlement when separation occurs, and it generally boils down to the question of ‘Well, who owns the pets?’

The Family Law Act hasn’t (yet) distinguished pets from property, and will consider pets in the same way they might consider the family car: 

        • Who purchased the pet? 
        • Who cares for it? 
        • Who feeds it?
        • Who pays for the insurance? 
        • Whose name is it registered in? 

All of these factors help determine the overall ‘ownership’ of the item of property in question, and will ultimately help you decide if keeping the pet independently is something you can commit to either jointly, solo, or not at all.

So, who gets the dog? What are my options?

Happy golden retriever who gets the dog

With a lot of couples opting to have ‘fur babies’ over human babies, this can lead to a variety of issues for pet owners when their relationship is on the rocks. If you can start the conversation early, the outcome will likely be less stressful for everyone involved. You could also consider:

  1. Ensuring that your pets are legally registered in your name;
  2. Ensuring that you have contributed to the purchase price of the pet; and/or
  3. Having the insurance policy in your name.

If you’d like to consider more formal arrangements, there is another option:

4. ‘the pup-nup.’ You could enter into an informal co-parenting agreement and/or a binding financial agreement for your pets.

Some couples may choose to pre-determine their financial position at separation in what is known as a Binding Financial Agreement (‘BFA’). This gives you a clear outline about exactly what’s going to happen to your assets. There is nothing stopping you from including your pets in these agreements!

You can outline how you might share the ‘asset’ in the event of a separation, if you choose to, along with ways you might meet particular costs such as grooming, training, vet bills and insurance etc.

What happens if we can’t seem to agree on anything?

It might be surprising to know that currently, the Courts aren’t guided by legislation when addressing the living arrangements for your pets in terms of ‘their best interests’, despite there being some calls to introduce it. So, in the absence of a formal agreement, you’ll need to consider what makes sense for you and your pets. 

Some things to think about:

  • Do you both want to remain involved?
  • If you have human children, what might be in their best interests in terms of arrangements for your pets?
  • Will you have new living arrangements, and are they suitable for your pet? 
  • How will you make important decisions about your pet if it were to become ill or injured?
  • What financial commitments are involved? 

Unfortunately, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to pet custody arrangements. At the end of the day, only you know what is best for your pets. If it turns out that neither of you can keep the pet, or can’t come to an agreement for whatever reason, you might need to consider the effect or rehoming or surrendering them. 

How will this work with my kids?

Young girl laughing with happiness next to pet dog custody

If you’re seeking parenting orders as well as a financial settlement, you might consider how the pets interact with the children. Does it make sense for one of you to keep the pets with the children, and conduct a handover with them present? Do your pets follow your kids if they spend time with the other parent? 

This might be particularly helpful if you or your children are experiencing separation anxiety or live with disability as there might be a particularly strong emotional attachment to the pet. In this instance, it would make sense for you to share responsibility, so that everyone benefits from the presence of the pet.

While we can’t make the final decision on who gets the dog for you, we can certainly help to outline your options and ensure a secured future for you and your pets. We have a team of lawyers located across Australia, who are highly skilled and experienced in property settlement and other asset matters.

We can help you find out what you might be entitled to and how to make a legal arrangement regarding your pets.

If you’d like us to get in touch with you for professional legal advice, fill out the form below.

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