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Who gets custody of the pet in case of a divorce?

There is a need to address the lacuna in pet custody laws and to recognise them as an integral part of a family unit

Lawyers assert that just because the dog can’t speak, doesn’t mean it has no emotions. Photo: Pexels

By Riddhi Doshi

LAST PUBLISHED 09.04.2024  |  01:30 PM IST

If a couple were to separate, who would get the custody of the pet? How would the court decide? What are the rules of pet custody? Turns out that not a lot of these questions find answers in the current judicial system. “We have regulations for children’s custody but not for pets," says Meera Kaura Patel, a Delhi-based Supreme Court advocate specialising in family disputes.

There is also no legislation under which pets can be treated as children, confirms Patel. It means that the effort taken in raising them is not recognised, nor is the bond between the parent and the pet. There is also a need for establishing the accountability of a pet’s well-being after its parents part. In the current judicial system, nobody can be held responsible for its poor upkeep. But this has to change. As more and more couples opt to raise a pet instead of a human child, the Indian family court might need to recognise the shifting social norm and regulate pet custody, believes Vandana Shah, a family court advocate and a pet parent based in Mumbai. Also, pets today are an integral part of the family even those with kids, and the court must recognise that, adds Shah.

Both Patel and Shah have had to deal with divorce cases where pet custody was one of the main disputes among partners, especially after the covid-19 pandemic when many people adopted a pet. The lawyers, though, usually advise the separating couple to mutually resolve the issue. “They really don’t have much choice," says Patel. But if neither party is willing to reach a compromise, the pet usually remains with the spouse that it is currently residing with, whether or not he or she is the best care givers. Those partners also get to decide whether the estranged partner gets to visit the pet or not.

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“Just because the dog can’t speak, doesn’t mean it has no emotions," says Patel. There is need for regulations for joint custody, financial support, visitation rights, and more. Maybe, lawyers can even take help of dog experts, who might be a better judge of a dog’s well-being.

But currently, in the absence of that, Patel advises couples to keep a record of who paid for the pet, how much was spent on its upkeep, and who spends how much time with the pet. Also, register the pet with local municipal bodies, and if possible, sign a pet-nuptial agreement, clearly stating who gets the custody of the pet in case of a divorce.

In a recent case, however, the welfare of the dogs was recognised. Last year, a 55-year-old woman was granted alimony for the care of three dogs by a Magistrate court in Mumbai. Hopefully this case will set a benchmark for other lawyers to appeal for better pet dispute laws.

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based art, culture and travel writer.


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