It is fair to say that England is a nation of pet lovers and arguably even more so since the pandemic, with people spending more time at home and wishing to seek the comfort of man’s proverbial best friend.
But what happens to our pets if our human relationships break down? Can you get a custody agreement to regulate the time you and your ex each get to spend with your pet? And is there anything you can do to protect yourself against a dispute about your pet?
What does the law say about pet ownership when you separate?
Under English and Welsh law, a pet is classed as property. Therefore who gets to keep it may simply come down to ownership i.e. whose money was used to fund the purchase. Who has financially maintained the pet, by paying for the vet’s bills, pet insurance or everyday expenses, such as food, may also be determinative where there is a dispute as to ownership.
Can I get custody of our pet?
Although there has been coverage of celebrity ‘pet custody’ battles in the press in recent years (think Amber Heard and Johnny Depp and their dogs, Pistol and Boo, or Ant and Lisa McPartlin’s chocolate lab Hurley) it is important to note that, as explained above, pets will be dealt with as property by the courts.
No matter how much you consider that your pet is like a child, unfortunately its welfare needs are unlikely to be taken into consideration and there is no court ordered pet equivalent of a child arrangements order (which is the English version of a child custody agreement).
This means that where a couple are divorcing and they cannot reach an agreement about their pet, it will be dealt with alongside their wider financial settlement (although the courts are likely to take a dim view where parties cannot reach an agreement between themselves on this subject). Where parties cannot agree, the court might even order that the pet is sold and the proceeds divided between them. Needs may be a contributing factor in any decision made, and if one party does not have enough income to meet their own needs, the court may question whether they can really afford to keep the pet at all.
Why are pets treated in this way?
Clients are often surprised that pets are treated as property and there is a feeling among some that England may be somewhat behind the times. In Alaska, the law in this area is more progressive and since 2017 divorce court judges have had to consider the well-being of pets when making decisions about them in proceedings.
Research undertaken by a pet insurance provider in 2019 found that 25% of divorce cases between 2018 and 2019 involved issues around the family pet. With pet ownership having sky-rocketed during the pandemic, it is logical to assume that pet issues will only become more prevalent within divorce and financial proceedings going forward. With 88% of people saying they would prioritise their pet over access to their ex’s pension funds, perhaps it is time to revisit the legal status of pets?
Is there anything I can do to protect myself against losing my pet to my ex?
The same research referred to above found that there has been a 24% increase in the number of requests family lawyers are receiving to draw up ‘pet nups’ for their animal loving clients. It is not just lawyers who would encourage couples to give as much thought to the protection of their pets as they would their other assets. The charity Blue Cross has created a downloadable pet nup to help couples plan for their pets’ futures and hopefully prevent the number of pets given to re-homing centres following relationship breakdowns (which was estimated to be around 4 a week in August 2020).
Like their name sake, pre-nuptial agreements, the aim of these agreements is to provide the parties with certainty and to make the process of splitting up a less costly experience, both financially and emotionally. A pet nup can cover all manner of things about the pet including, perhaps most importantly, with whom it will live should its human parents separate. For those who would find the heartache of parting with their pet on the breakdown of their human relationship too much to bear, a pet nup could provide them with the peace of mind they need.