To avoid fighting like cats and dogs, should you enter into a “pet-nuptial” agreement?

Some of the fiercest battles I have seen in divorce cases over the years haven’t been over the cars, the house or even the children, they’ve been about who keeps the family pet. Given the emotional toll of being parted from your favorite animal – or as some clients describe them, their “hairy babies” – should you enter into a “pet-nuptial” agreement in case you and your spouse get divorced?

"When a couple breaks up, they will almost come to blows over the dog because the bond is so strong"

A chocolate Labrador called Hurley was in the press more than most celebrities last year. His claim to fame was being the dog at the centre of a bitter custody dispute between TV presenter Ant McPartlin and ex-wife Lisa Armstrong. The couple eventually agreed to share custody of the dog and one tabloid ran a feature on whether the arrangement will have caused Hurley any anxiety. You'll be pleased to know that according to dog behaviourist Adem Fehmi "chocolate Labs tend to be very robust, they don't tend to be stressy".

The fact that this was even newsworthy shows how important pets are to people's wellbeing. The most fought over animals are dogs, followed by cats, horses, rabbits and guinea pigs. For many people, losing their pet is the most stressful part of their break up. "When a couple breaks up, they will almost come to blows over the dog because the bond is so strong," says clinical psychologist Helen Nightingale.

The law relating to pets

So far as the law is concerned, there are no special rules that apply to pets. They are treated in the same way as chattels such as cars, jewellery, artworks, even the toaster. If the parties can't agree who keeps them, a judge will decide taking into account a number of factors. These will include which of the parties is capable of looking after the pet and where it is most suitable for them to live. A decisive factor may be the impact of the children, and it is not unusual for judges to decide that the pets should live in the children's primary home.

Judges have a degree of flexibility about how pets are dealt with. This may mean transferring ownership and responsibility to one party or giving the couple joint custody at shared cost.

Pet-nuptial agreements

Like many disputes involving divorce, much time, money and heartache can be avoided by planning for the possibility that your marriage may not last. With more than four in 10 UK marriages ending in divorce, it makes sense to prepare for that eventuality by entering into a pre-nuptial agreement.

If you are reluctant to discuss financial and child welfare arrangements, you could limit this to putting in place a plan for your beloved pet (or pets) so at least their welfare and your rights should you split up are set out in black and white. You don't even need to sign a "pet-nuptial" agreement before you get married. Agreements of this nature (technically "post-nuptial agreements") can be signed during your marriage.

Whilst pre- and post-nuptial agreements aren't legally enforceable in UK courts (yet), they can play a decisive part in decisions judges make and carry "compelling" weight, subject to certain formalities having been complied with. These are:

  1. Both parties must have received independent legal advice.
  2. The agreement must have been entered into no less than 21 days before the wedding or civil ceremony.
  3. Neither party must have been put under pressure or duress to sign the agreement.
  4. Both parties must have made full and frank disclosure of their assets.
  5. The agreement has to be fair and realistic.

If you would like to discuss putting in place a pet-, pre- or post-nuptial agreement, please contact me now at [email protected].