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I want a divorce and I'm taking the dog

Marriage
London - A rarely talked-about aspect of divorce is what happens to the pets. Under English law, pets are considered property, just like cars, handbags and furniture, so their welfare is not considered in the same way as, for instance, children – even though for many people they are an integral part of the family.

But things are starting to change: last month Alaska enacted a law which will treat pets more like children.

The state said courts now will “take into consideration the well-being of the animal” when deciding which party the pets go to.

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When Hollywood actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard got divorced, she got custody of the dogs.

Their default option is to assign joint custody of the pets, like the preferred option for children.

Divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag, who has represented several high-profile clients at her family law firm Vardags, says pets can often be a source of huge emotional trauma during divorce proceedings.

“It (love for the pet/s) becomes something very deep-seated and the parties hang their emotions on to it,” she said. "Where a pre-nup is in place, this may sort out the issue of who gets the dog or cat, but when this is not the case, you need to look at the overall circumstances of the individuals involved in the dispute, Vardag says. “If there is enough money, you try to maintain all the things that are important to people and try to enable them to continue,” she explains.

This is why in a 2008 case an unidentified woman was awarded £50 000 a year in maintenance for the upkeep of her three horses through a legal appeal after claiming the horses had almost become her child substitute during their 11-year marriage.

“Of course, couples invest in pets with huge emotion, in some cases just like children,” Vardag says. When she has to negotiate a divorce for a client, she says she tries to come to an arrangement with the other party when it comes to pets.

“You try to come to some sense of arrangement, try to work out the sharing times. It’s just like children, really. If someone can spend more time with the animal, they might be better there, but might spend time with the other partner, who might be working more, at weekends."

However, she warns that couples can feud for so long over the custody of a pet that, actually, given the animal’s shorter lifespan, it might not be worth it.

She references a case in which a divorced couple argued for so long over who got the pet rabbit that it died before the proceedings were finalised.

She says neither her fellow lawyers nor the legal system should not dismiss the importance of pets when it comes to divorce, and any custodial arrangements or disputes should be handled sensitively. “People love their animals this is not to be taken lightly by the courts and lawyers handling divorces.

"They have to understand that if somebody is in a fragile and vulnerable state anyway and feels they have lost much of what made their life worth living, these creatures that they feel give them unconditional love, who make them happy, and who they love so deeply themselves, can just tip them over the edge.

“This can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, and it’s something we have to treat with real sensitivity.” 

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