How to Avoid a Pet Custody Dispute – Get a Petnup

Ella Welsby, a senior associate at law firm DMH Stallard and specialist divorce lawyer, said:

“April is National Pet Month and is intended to raise awareness of the joys of responsible pet ownership.

“We are a nation of animal lovers, but consideration of how pet ownership would be dealt with in the event of a relationship breakdown often comes too late.

“Given the continued trend for couples to embark on pet ownership as a first foray into family life, it is important to appreciate how to best protect respective interests.

“For married couples, the family court regards pets, not as family members, but as ‘chattels’ and can treat them in the same way as possessions. For unmarried couples, there is the potential prospect of being taken to the small claims court if there is a pet custody dispute.

“The best way to ensure your pet’s future is appropriately planned in the event of a breakup, is to put in place a petnup, which is an agreement about who owns the pet and what arrangements would be put in place for ‘contact’ if this is thought appropriate.

“Such agreements can be added to a prenup (for those who plan to marry) or added to a cohabitation agreement (for those who live together).

“Petnups are not automatically legally binding and legal advice should be taken before they are entered into.

“The importance of having a petnup is emphasised by the fact a court cannot order an owner of a pet to allow an animal to spend time with a former partner i.e. there is no such thing as court ordered pet custody.

“Sadly, there have been rare cases where parties have been unable to agree provisions for a pet that was purchased jointly and a court has ordered its sale with the division of proceeds. Therefore, before welcoming a new furry, scaly, feathered member of the household, it is best to be clear as to what would happen if you don’t stay together, to avoid unnecessary cost and unquantifiable emotional upset.

“Without a petnup an expensive and stressful battle about who purchased the pet, who insured it and who is the registered owner could result. Ultimately, one partner is at risk of not seeing their beloved pet again.

“The petnup should clearly set out the planned arrangements if a couple breaks up.

“It should be pet specific e.g a cat is more likely to become attached to its home environment. Behaviour values should also be considered, for example, are you both content with dogs being on sofas/beds, if not, training should be consistent to ensure that in the event of a split a pet is not confused by different behaviour expectations if it shares two homes in future.

“For animals which require specialist environments, such as reptiles, it may be decided that a ‘nesting arrangement’ would be put in place so that the former couple take turns staying in the property with a terrarium.

“If a petnup wasn’t put in place when a pet joined the family, it could be entered into later or mediation can be considered as an alternative to court if no such agreement was ever reached

“The practicality of such arrangements will be reliant on parties remaining civil and it is hoped that having petnups in place, with all parties having reassurance that they will not be cut out of a pet’s life, will act to ensure relations remain as amicable as possible with unnecessary expense and stress avoided – for pets and their ‘pawrents’.”

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