Pet-nups. What are they?

Gabrielle Read-Thomas, a specialist in family law, explains how you can avoid making your pet the subject of a custody battle

The newest addition to George and Amal Clooney's household has took the media by storm in February. Nelson, a St Bernard puppy, is reported to have been a surprise gift from George for his wife's 46th birthday.

For many couples, dogs or cats have become a replacement for children, even if they intend to have them at a later date. Pets have a special place in our lives, which means there can be some contention over custody if a couple separate.

During the covid pandemic pet ownership in the UK increased exponentially. It is estimated that by 2022, 62% of the UK's 28 million households owned a pet.

With pet ownership remaining high, the number of divorce cases involving a pet has continued to grow. Research by Direct Line Pet Insurance in 2022 highlighted that 27% of divorces in 2021 involved the custody of a pet.

When an animal joins your household the last thing you want to think about is what would happen if you and your partner broke up. However, to protect your pet it is sensible to draft a document that details who will keeps it if the relationship finishes.

Research has revealed that over the three years to 2022, there was a 20% rise in the demand for pet-nups. This number has continued to grow, and pets now crop up regularly in divorce settlement conversations.

Pet-nups set out information in written form about who owns the pet, who the primary carer is, and what will happen in the event of relationship breakdown. These documents are not technically legally binding in England and Wales, but if the divorce ends up in court, they may hold weight providing they are properly drawn up by a lawyer.

Pets are still classed as 'chattel' in law - meaning they have the same legal standing as objects like cars or dishwashers. This is where pet-nups can come in useful, as they reflect the fact that the pet means far more to you than a household item.

Where complications can arise is when a pet, similar to any item worth over £500, is given as a gift, as in the case of the Clooneys.

As a general rule any gift of this value forms part of the 'matrimonial pot', so if the pet was a gift it would be considered part of this. The matrimonial pot includes all the money, assets, property and so on that have been acquired over the course of the marriage, whether by one party or both.

For argument's sake, let's say that the Clooneys were living at their English home and decided to divorce. If Nelson became a point of contention, he would technically be regarded as part of the matrimonial pot. However, a judge might rule that, if there was sufficient evidence, Amal should have full custody of him because he was a gift for her. This would also depend on other factors, such as whether she would be able to take sole care of him h almost certainly yes!

Divorces involving pet custody are likely to become more common as more people make furry friends. Putting a pet-nup in place from day one (although they can be drafted at any stage) will help to reduce conflict should a relationship break down. They are particularly helpful if the pet was a gift, as they make matters clear and mitigate the risk of a custody battle in the future.

Gabrielle Read-Thomas is a senior associate at Stowe Family Law,