Stars of teenage vampire films known as the ‘Twilight’ saga, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, have apparently split, sparking an online debate over who should keep their rescue dog ‘Bear’, ‘according to the Mail Online this morning.
This is an issue which frequently comes up when we give divorce advice, or speak to separating couples. Pets are after all members of the family, and can provide much needed comfort during the stresses of relationship breakdown.
However, unlike children of the family, it is not possible to apply for ‘custody’ (or residence, in the UK) of a pet. The law is unsentimental. Pets are viewed as ‘chattels’, or personal property, by the courts; ultimately the decision on who keeps the dog is made in the same way as a dispute over the dining room furniture.
It is often said that disputes over personal property fall ‘beneath the judicial radar’ unless of particular value or importance; in other words, judges are usually inclined to let people sort it out for themselves as their time is best spent elsewhere. Further, the cost of having solicitors resolve the issue can be more than the goods are worth, making our involvement completely disproportionate. Divorcing or separating couples can instead go to mediation or arbitration over this single issue if agreement really isn’t possible.
At the recent District Judges’ Forum hosted by Manchester Resolution, the judges agreed that there was no formula for dividing personal property if a solution cannot be found elsewhere; reference was even made to a ‘dutch auction’ being the most practical solution, where the judge (acting as auctioneer) would begin with a high asking price for each item, lowered until one of the spouses is prepared to pay.
This may still not offer a solution where pets are concerned. There have been cases where the court has threatened to apply the ‘judgment of Solomon’ and order that the animal be destroyed (with each party funding the vet’s fees) unless agreement is reached. Less severely, but still arbitrarily, a judge may ask for the animal to be brought to court, to be kept by the person to whom it runs when each of them whistles.
I have yet to experience such a distressing situation, however it is worth stressing that the court is a very blunt instrument and it is better to reach a solution in private. As Pattinson and Stewart are not married their dispute over Bear could end up in the civil, rather than the divorce court, however I hope they manage to reach agreement soon, for Bear’s sake.