Divorce Lawyers Report Rise In Pet Custody Cases
Specialist divorce lawyers have reported an increase in issues relating to pet ownership and relationship breakdowns, with some clients opting for a so-called ‘pet-nup’ to avoid disputes should they separate.
Lawyers at national firm Clarke Willmott LLP say they are increasingly advising on issues relating to who will keep the family pet in the same way they are asked to advise on the arrangements for a child.
However, Laura Bond, a family law specialist at the firm warns that whilst owners may consider their four-legged companion as a family member, the Courts in England and Wales do not necessarily take the same view.
Laura said: “The ownership of a family pet can be one of the most emotive and distressing issues to resolve for separating couples.
“The current law in England and Wales provides that a pet is a “chattel” in the same way as a TV, sofa or painting. It is therefore simply an asset to be distributed in the same manner as other material possessions. There are exceptions in divorce cases for very high value animals (e.g. a race horse or champion show animal), or if a pet is directly linked to other financial considerations, for example where the family income derives largely from breeding or showing animals.
“However, for the average family pet there is no legal argument to make about the animal’s welfare or needs, and the Court may be reluctant to get involved in disputes about pet ownership. It is possible that this will change in the future and the English Courts will start to adopt a more welfare-based test, but until that time pet owners may be surprised and disappointed to discover the reality of the position.”
Laura has noticed a growing trend for a written agreement or ‘pet-nup’ about the pet and what should happen to it in the event of a separation, which can be entered into either before or during the marriage or relationship.
The terms of the ‘pet-nup’ can deal with ownership of the animal and what the arrangements will be in terms of where it lives and what access the other person will have to the pet should the relationship end. It can also deal with financial considerations such as how all related costs (vets bills, food, insurance, and so on) will be funded.
If there is written indication of the parties’ intentions in relation to these matters it could be highly persuasive, or even conclusive, evidence if there is a future dispute.
“Given the importance of pets to their owners, the concept of a written agreement seems like a good idea,” said Laura. “This is most likely to be covered in a marital agreement or a cohabitation agreement but could also be a stand-alone document.
“If your spouse or partner will not agree to sign any kind of agreement, or if the terms cannot be agreed, then a paper trail of documentary evidence as to who pays for all expenses related to the animal remains the best evidence to establish ownership.
“The strong bonds people develop with their pets mean that disputes as to ownership and access to pets can become very emotional and difficult when couples separate. Pet owners are becoming increasingly aware of the potential problems and are taking steps to try to alleviate any future arguments about their pets, in the same way that they would about financial matters.
“Family lawyers can help by identifying possible issues and advising couples on how to protect their positions. This may include taking steps to draft an agreement to set out what would happen to the pet if there is a separation. Alternatively, if the dispute has already arisen lawyers can advise on other options including mediation.”
The family team at Clarke Willmott are members of Resolution, the national body of family lawyers committed to dealing with disputes constructively.
Clarke Willmott is a national law firm with offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Southampton and Taunton.
For more information visit www.clarkewillmott.com