Yesterday marked National Pet Day, giving pet owners across the country a chance to celebrate their precious four legged friends. After a year of lockdown in which many have acquired new pets to combat social isolation (an estimated 3.2 million households have newly become pet-owning since the start of the pandemic), many will agree that their pets are simply a part of the family. This remains the case in the event of a relationship breakdown; figures from the Blue Cross animal charity show that one in four divorces involve a dispute over a pet. Difficulty often arises in these cases, as there are no laws in England & Wales relating specifically to pets upon separation; instead, the courts treat the family pet in the same way as any other chattel or personal property, primarily based on monetary value, which does not account for the emotional bond to the family pet. For this reason, the courts will often encourage parties to reach an agreement out of court.
Given the growing popularity of pre-nuptial agreements in the UK since the landmark ‘Radmacher’ Supreme Court case in 2010, it is becoming increasingly common for couples to state in their pre-nups who will get to keep the family pet in the event of their relationship breakdown. Whilst pre-nups are not strictly legally binding in the UK, they can hold considerable weight as one of the factors to be considered by the family courts of England and Wales upon a divorce. Similarly, the courts cannot enforce most “pet-nup” clauses, though they can enforce contractual agreements to regulate financial losses. This could include costs such as vet bills, insurance and microchipping. They may, if necessary, also consider pet ownership by reference to the intentions evidenced by the contractual agreement, such as a pre-nup. So for ardent pet-owners it may well be worth taking steps to protect your pooch (or parrot or cat) and consider making provision for them in your pre-nup!