Petnups: Dogs and divorce

Divorce|September 17th 2019

To some people, it’s just a dog or cat; to others, they are an important member of the family. 

It may, therefore, come as no surprise to some readers that pets can be one of the most hotly contested aspects of settlement negotiations when a couple decides to divorce or separate. 

In recent years, it has been reported that Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong battled over who will get ‘custody’ over their Labrador, Hurley. Whilst in Hollywood, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s divorce settlement apparently confirmed that she would maintain ‘custody’ of their dogs, Pistol and Boo.

So what is the legal position regarding pets in a divorce? And what options do you have if you really cannot agree? 

We asked Gabrielle Read-Thomas, Solicitor, from our Altrincham office to join us on the blog to explain further. 

I have had numerous clients come for an appointment to discuss their divorce, an important part of which is ongoing arrangements for their much-loved pet. I have a cat myself and can entirely empathise with this situation! 

What is a ‘petnup’?

Apparently one in four divorces now involves a dispute over a pet and as a result, The Law Society has previously suggested that entering into a ‘petnup’ might be beneficial. 

This is like a prenuptial or separation agreement, but specifically dealing with pets.

Where does the law currently stand on the issue?

Currently, the law is clear – a pet is classed as a chattel i.e. an item of personal property such as an item of furniture or jewellery. Essentially, the party who bought the animal, and to whom it is registered, will keep it.  The only exception is if there is clear evidence the animal was subsequently gifted to the other party.

When trying to resolve ownership issues in a divorce I recommend that clients: 

  • Consider factors such as who bought the animal, who primarily cared for it, who paid the vet bills etc in order to arrive at a fair decision on who should keep it.
  • Reflect on what is in the animal’s best interests; if one of you goes out to work all day and the animal is left alone, it might be fairer for him or her to live with the person who is around more.
  • If you and your ex-partner are on amicable terms, it might be possible to adopt a ‘shared care’ approach.  For example, a pet dog can regularly be taken for walks by the party with whom the pet no longer lives.
  • A good reason to remain on friendly terms is that your ex-partner can provide free pet-care whilst you are on holiday! 

Mediation

If it is not possible to reach an agreement you could consider attending mediation. This would enable you and your ex-partner to sit down with a trained impartial mediator who will help you resolve the issue. 

If mediation does not work a pet could be considered as part of an overall financial settlement on divorce, however, if this is the only area of dispute, it is unlikely to be cost-effective to issue court proceedings purely to resolve this issue.  Yet some firmly take the view that you cannot put a price on the family pet!

Why create a petnup?

Ultimately to avoid any heartache and potentially costly legal proceedings, it is certainly worth considering entering into an agreement to resolve what will happen to the pet in the event of a separation. 

A ‘petnup’ can cover who the pet will live with, who will care for it, who will pay for vet fees and other expenses etc. The agreement is essentially a contract and on this basis, a court would very likely uphold the terms of it.

Get in touch

If you would like any advice on creating a petnup or are struggling to resolve a dispute about a pet as part of your divorce, you can contact us here or at the number below.

Gabrielle is a Solicitor in our Altrincham office. She advises clients on all elements of a relationship breakdown including financial settlements and making arrangements for children.

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