When couples separate, who gets the pets?

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

As more young Australians put off marriage and children until their late 20s, it has almost become a rite of passage for loved-up millenials to adopt four-legged family members first.

One in five de facto couples in Australia own a pet together, according to a 2016 census. If you’re married without children, that figure is higher at 34 per cent.

But when couples split up, what happens to Frodo? Much like regular children, is anyone responsible for paying financial support? And what about visitation?

The legal grey area of separating with a pet became apparent recently to this writer when her ex-boyfriend handed her a doggy maintenance bill of more than $11,000 (which this writer refuses to pay).

Sally Nicholes, a partner at Nicholes Family Lawyers, has seen everything from dog kidnappings to pets being used as emotional weapons in domestic violence situations.

While Whiskers may be your fur baby, Ms Nicholes says pets are firmly considered as property in the eyes of the law – not children.

Because their best interests and welfare are not recognised like children’s, there is no legal obligation for couples to pay maintenance or share custody once they split.

“Other countries like the United States have actually moved toward a welfare approach in determining who gets to keep the pet after separation, whereas here pets are firmly categorised as property in eyes of law.”

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

Because pets are becoming such a big part of our lives, some courts in the United States are beginning to recognise this, taking into account factors such as income and who has more time to care for the pet in their decision over who is granted custody.

The average Australian spends between $1500 to $3000 on their pet each year, according to that 2016 census by pet insurer, Petplan.

While financial support for pets isn’t recognised by Australian courts, it can still be factored in during divorce proceedings. But if you’re not a married couple and cannot afford a lawyer, are there cheaper ways to resolve a dispute?

Many lawyers and senior barristers are accredited arbitrators who can make binding decisions on discreet issues such as pet custody for a fixed fee of about $1500.

Most importantly, couples should be having the difficult conversation about who would end up with Frodo in the case of a break-up before they even adopt him.

“While the court say animals don’t have great monetary value, given the sentimental value it is worth doing that. Because it does cause great angst.”

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

The weight of pets in family disputes was highlighted when the definition of family violence was extended in 2011 to include threats to abuse or harm a pet.

Ms Nicholes said many women were afraid to leave abusive partners out of fear their pet would be harmed. Shelters, refuges and other forms of housing also can’t accept women have fled with their dog or cat.

Ms Nicholes said the expansion of the act had raised awareness about different forms of family violence and enabled lawyers to use this argument in court.

“Using a pet as a negotiating tool, that is family violence,” she said.

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