Pets and family law

Anne Cowden from the CFLS Team discusses how your animals will be accounted
for after separation

When separating, arrangements will need to be made for your property, finances, living
arrangements and the care of your children. But what about when it comes to your pets? In our
latest blog post, Creative Family Law Solutions Anne Cowden, lawyer, explores the current
developments of animal law within the context of family law, shedding light on what the
arrangements of your pets after separation can involve. Read more below.
The intersection of family law and animal law, particularly pets, is an exceedingly interesting
area of developing law. One example of this intersection is when a couple breaks up and then
enters into a dispute over who gets to keep their shared pets from the relationship. This
scenario – particularly where dogs are involved – is becoming more and more common that our
family law courts (The Federal Circuit and Family Courts) are now often asked to make rulings
regarding family pets.

The fundamental principle of contemporary animal law in Australia is that animals are
considered the legal property of their human owners. Consequently, disputes regarding pets are
treated under the property provisions of The Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) in Australian Family

Unlike a family law matter regarding children, the pet’s ‘best interests”, or welfare, are not the
court’s legal priority. Pets are commonly treated as ‘chattels’ in family law disputes, similar to an
item of furniture or jewellery. Issues of who purchased the animal and whose name it is
registered can sometimes be crucial to a court’s determinations.

In Australian courts, there have been some rulings that pets gifted by one partner to another
were to remain the property of the recipient of the gift – despite the gift giver declaring that the
pet belongs to them. It is worth noting, however, that this result may not apply in every similar
legal dispute, and the circumstances of each family will make the court outcome unique.
From our experience at Creative Family Law Solutions, we have a particular interest in
children’s law. We have observed that some pet dispute settlements often link to the child’s
relationship with the family pets. For example, a pet dog may move with a child as they spend
time with each parent. However, this requires both parents to adequately transport the pet
between their homes and provide equally adequate care. Whilst this arrangement may be
feasible with animals such as dogs, the idea of moving a cat or a smaller pet between
households may be less manageable.

The significance and value of family pets have also been recognised overseas. Spain created
new laws in 2021 deeming animals as sentient beings, compelling couples to consider the
welfare of their pets when making decisions about their separate lives.
Closer to home, in the Australian Capital Territory, The ACT Animal Welfare Act 2019
recognises animals as sentient beings too. This development is likely to influence and/or
permeate the family law jurisdiction in that territory soon and be observed by lawmakers in other
states and territories.

As this area of law continues to evolve, it is an exciting progression influenced by the pandemic
and changing status of our animal corporations. Our increasing appreciation of animal welfare
as a society has also played a role, which suggests that the arrangements and care of animals
within family law matters are moving in a better and more considered direction.
If you wish to discuss your pets and what their arrangements can look like following your
separation, our team at Creative Family Law Solutions can help you understand your options
and next steps. Reach out to us here to learn more.

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