Who gets custody of the dog? Couples urged to sign a pet-nup

·5-min read
Who gets custody of the dog? (Getty Images)
Who gets custody of the dog? (Getty Images)

Couples who have welcomed new dogs or cats during the pandemic should consider getting a pet-nup setting out who gets custody if they break-up, family lawyers have suggested.

During lockdown, demand for pets increased hugely, with figures from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) revealing around 3.2 million UK households have bought an animal companion since the pandemic began.

However, there has also been a surge in dog custody battles in the UK, with enquiries up by 50% during lockdown, according to data from Richard Nelson LLP.

Comparing August 2020 to April 2021, figures show a 239% increase in traffic to the family law firm's dog custody services as couples dispute who will care for their pet.

Read more: Dog theft on the rise: Simple steps to protect your pooch

Experts advise couples get a pet-nup when buying a pooch together. (Getty Images)
Experts advise couples get a pet-nup when buying a pooch together. (Getty Images)

The stresses and strains of the past year have placed an enormous strain on many relationships, leading to a predicted spike in break-ups and divorces.

With 42% of marriages in England and Wales ending in divorce, millions of pets could be at the centre of relationship conflict in the coming years, with the majority of owners having no formal agreement in place as to who officially owns the family pooch.

Solicitors are therefore warning pet owners should consider signing a pet-nup to avoid future disputes should they split up.

"With so many furry friends joining households across the UK since the start of the pandemic it’s no surprise that pet-nups could be on the rise - especially as the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on many relationships," explains a spokesperson for Howells solicitors.

"You wouldn’t have gotten a pet with your partner and have been planning on separating, but of course these things do happen, which is why it could be a good idea to get a pet-nup."

What is a pet-nup?

Pet-nups - a play on the shortened version of the term pre-nuptial agreement – is the equivalent of a pre-nuptial agreement, but with pet welfare, not finance, at its heart, according to Vanessa Lloyd Platt divorce lawyer at Lloyd Platt.

"It sets out the right of ownership in the event of a divorce or relationship breakdown and covers ongoing pet care," she explains.

"Signing up to this specially created document to plan for your pets’ futures can help avoid heartache should your relationship come to an end."

Pet-nups are short documents that could act as a legally binding contract between a married or co-habiting couple.

“Aside from the arrangements for children, deciding who takes the family pet can be one of the most difficult battles to have when dividing up assets on separation," explains Theo Hoppen, partner in family law at Langley Solicitors.

Watch: Research prove pets make us happier and healthier. 

Hoppen says pet-nups are important as pets have the same legal status as other belongings. 

“Whilst a pet can quickly become part of the family, the law is clear and treats pets as chattels, an item of personal property, such as a piece of furniture or a car," he explains. 

“If parties cannot agree arrangements for Fido, a Court will only be interested in who paid for the pet and who was responsible for the pet financially, unless it can be clearly shown the pet was purchased as a gift for the other party or there was an agreement that the ownership would be shared with the party who did not purchase it."

Having a pet-nup can help avoid legal disputes.

"Similarly, to a pre-nuptial agreement, this can set out the arrangements upon separation and confirm who the pet will live with, who will pay for vet fees and who will ultimately care for the pet," Hoppen continues. 

"When drafted correctly, a pet-nup can form a contract between you and your partner which will likely be upheld by the court.”

Read more: Vets warn about separation anxiety in dogs as lockdown eases - here's how to combat it

A pet-nup can help avoid conflict after a relationship break-up. (Getty Images)
A pet-nup can help avoid conflict after a relationship break-up. (Getty Images)

Read more: Pets 'helped people cope emotionally' during coronavirus lockdown, study suggest

Lloyd Platt and Company has partnered with animal charity Blue Cross in an attempt to stop the numbers of pets getting caught up in marital disputes, and to lessen the stress and heartache for owners and pets.

"Our pets are not just material goods; they are often at the heart of our home lives, so it is a good idea to agree on your pet’s future in advance to make a difficult situation easier," Lloyd Platt continues.

According to recent figures, four pets are taken in by Blue Cross every week following relationship breakdowns.

"Some post-breakup disputes over pets can even end in an animal being given away or abandoned," Lloyd Platt adds.

Commenting on the impact break-ups can have on the wellbeing of dogs, Nick Jones, dog behaviourist says: “Divorce or relationship breakups are stressful enough for humans and at times it is unavoidable that the dog remains with one of the couple, or in worst case situations is re-homed altogether. 

"This can leave the dog feeling displaced and unsettled and for some dogs, this effect may be devastating as the dog tries to adapt to its new circumstances in day to day living.”

If you're thinking about getting a pet-nup you can reach out to your solicitors to discuss this, or certain charities, such as Blue Cross, provide agreement templates to make the process a lot easier.

Watch: Welfare action plan for pets, wildlife and livestock set out.

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