The 2017 case of Downey & Beale1 provided a landmark decision when the parties had satisfactorily negotiated a property settlement following a separation except for one item – who gets custody of the family dog?
Animal lovers may be surprised to hear that laws in Australia presently classify pets as chattels, meaning that Judges must view disputes over pets in the same way as furniture and other items of personal property. This particular dispute therefore had to be determined in line with this existing authority. However, there was no evidence provided by the parties as to the dog’s value and breed nor were they arguing about the monetary value of the pet – instead, they were attempting to argue over the sentimental importance of the dog.
In accordance with existing authorities, the Judge examined the existing legal and equitable interests of the parties in the dog. He also considered that the contributions of the pet’s maintenance and upkeep had been the sole expense of the wife during the course of the relationship, despite the fact that the initial purchase price was provided for by the husband. Ultimately, the Judge was satisfied that the wife was the owner of the dog, as she had borne the majority of possession and contributions to the dog – therefore it was not appropriate to make any order varying this.
Because of limited judicial resources available when finalising parenting and property disputes, cases involving pets usually do not proceed to the Family Law Courts. While the case provides an interesting precedent for disputes over the ownership of pets in the case of separation, pets are still viewed as personal property and do not have their own legal rights (as children do).
If you and your partner have separated and you need advice as to either parenting or property, please contact our office to discuss your options.
This post is general information only. It is not a substitute for legal advice from a lawyer. If you have a legal issue, you should always contact your lawyer to obtain advice that is relevant to your circumstances.
1  FCCA 316