Who gets the dog after a break-up? Spain starts shared custody

a couple with their pet. Spain is the latest European country to recognise animals as sentient beings
Spain is the latest European country to recognise animals as sentient beings. Photo: Chewy/Unsplash
In the case of a break-up or divorce, who keeps the family cat or dog? Spain has ruled that as of January 5th 2022 pets are members of the family and spouses should in many cases share custody if they break up.

There was hardly any doubt about it already among animal lovers, but pets are now officially considered members of the family in Spain. 

A new law that came into effect on Wednesday January 5th recognises pets as “living, sentient beings” for the first time, and not mere objects.

As a result, family courts must consider both the animal’s welfare, as well as the family needs, when deciding who looks after the dog, cat, goldfish, turtle or bird.

Spain is the latest European country to recognise animals as sentient beings, joining a group that includes France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Portugal.

The legislation, which was drafted by the ruling Socialists and their leftist coalition partners Podemos, aims to end the legal wrangling that often erupts among estranged couples over who keeps the pets.

It stipulates that owners must “guarantee” the pet’s well-being and that if either spouse has a history of cruelty to animals or gender violence against their former partner he or she may be refused or lose custody of the animal.

The law, which amends Spain’s civil code, also requires courts to consider the animal’s welfare when settling disputes over who inherits a pet.

Whether it’s a non-marital separation or a divorce, there can be shared custody, in which case judicial authorities must assist in asigning a number of days for each spouse as well as their responsabilities. 

In the event of the owner’s death and when a will does not specify anything in relation to companion animals, pets will be delivered to the heirs who claim them in accordance with the law.

If none of the heirs want to take care of the animal, or if several heirs claim custody, a judge will have the final say, as well as consider third parties who are interested in adopting the pet. 


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