It is no secret that the UK is a nation of pet lovers. Many of us think of our Pets as integral members of the family. But what happens to our furry friends when families break up?
While the average length of an English marriage is 11 years, most domestic dogs and cats will live longer than this and, in some cases, much longer. So as responsible pet owners, why are we not making better provision for these much-loved pets when it comes to relationship breakdown?
We know that pre-nuptial agreements are becoming increasingly popular as planning tools to mitigate the worst if relationships flounder, but it now seems that the use of pet-nups is also on the rise. Since 2015, more and more couples have been entering into pet-nups to protect their pets’ interests in the event that they themselves split up, and to make provision for their pets in the wake of a breakdown in their own relationship.
More recently, the Alaskan courts have pioneered a remarkable legislative change that paves the way for pets in Alaska to be treated more like children in the event of relationship breakdown. From now on, Alaskan courts are obliged to take the well-being of animals into consideration as an integral part of Divorce proceedings and Alaskan judges now have the power to assign joint pet-custody orders.
This approach is far removed from the manner in which the English legal system still treats pets caught up in their owners’ divorce proceedings. Here, our pets are still seen as chattels and their treatment under the law has more in common with that of jewellery, furniture and cars than with our children. Until now, English divorce disputes over the household pet have come under very little close public scrutiny. Our judges seem reluctant to spend a disproportionate amount of their valuable and expensive court time analysing who paid the vet’s bills or who cleaned up the most mess – and rightly so. But as a consequence, many family lawyers are left in the dark when it comes to advising clients on their rights to claim the family pet.
Recent research by UK and Irish pet charity Blue Cross found that in England one in four divorces included a dispute over pets, with dogs and cats the most frequently fought over. Moreover, 66 per cent of research participants admitted a pre-agreed written agreement would have helped to make the process much less upsetting, as well as considerably cheaper.
Although an enlightened change of legislative heart in Alaska may have made a splash in the animal law world, closer to home it seems our legal attitude to pets remains firmly stuck in the past. Until this changes, it looks as though pet-nups are here to stay.
For expert advice on pet-nups, pre-nups, post-nups and living-together agreements, please contact our family law department on 01243 786668 or at [email protected] to book your no-cost, no-obligation initial consultation.
Tina Day, head of family law at George Ide LLP
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