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'Pet-nups' help divorcing couples avoid pug-of-war

'Never mind the pre-nup — many divorcing couples may wish they had negotiated a “pet-nup” to resolve the biggest dilemma when a marriage ends: who gets custody of Rover?

So many couples end end up squabbling over pets that the Law Society is recommending custody issues be addressed in pre-nuptial agreements “to provide peace of mind”.

One in four divorces involve a dispute over a pet, according to the Blue Cross animal charity. And the arguments are becoming “more heated”, said Gabrielle Read-Thomas, a solicitor at Stowe Family Law.

“One man I recently worked with wasn’t bothered about the finances at all,” Read-Thomas added. “His only concern was about retaining custody of his dog.”

For couples who become embroiled in lengthy and expensive divorce negotiations, the fate of family pets is no laughing matter.

The television presenter Ant McPartlin is still arguing with his estranged wife, Lisa Armstrong, over who keeps their Labrador, Hurley. The hapless hound was last reported to be spending alternate weekends at their respective homes.

The acrimonious 2017 split between the Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard involved lengthy negotiations over who got custody of Pistol and Boo, their Yorkshire terriers, and Arrow, a horse. All three ended up with Heard (Depp got to keep his motorbikes).

Pet disputes have become so common in America that they are the subject of a new reality TV series, Pet Divorce Court, which  promises “Real barks. Real meows. Real drama.”

Read-Thomas attributes the increase in British pet disputes to a steady decline in the UK birth rate. Last year 657,076 babies were born in England and Wales, a drop of 3.2% on 2017, and down nearly 10% on 2012.

Instead of having babies, many young couples seem to prefer pets. The pet-nups tend to be requested by “younger couples who don’t have huge assets to protect but a pet they love very much”, said Read-Thomas.

A pet-nup, like a pre-nup, is not legally binding but will help a judge decide custody. A typical pet-nup costs £500-£1,250 in solicitor fees and will set out who retains ownership in the event of a split, where the pet lives and who pays veterinary and other bills.

“Sometimes people use pets as a weapon against each other,” added Katie O’Callaghan, a Senior Associate at the legal firm Boodle Hatfield.

Not everyone cares who gets the pet, however. In one recent divorce case, neither husband nor wife wanted to keep their python. It ended up going to live with a family friend.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times on 24 November 2019. Find out more about our Family Law services.

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