The rise of the ‘pet-nup’

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Couple and their pet. (Photo: Getty Images)
Couple and their pet. (Photo: Getty Images)

Its official, divorces have gone to the dogs . . . or cats?

Custody disputes over four-legged friends have become so common in divorce negotiations that it has led to a rise in “pet-nups”, a type of prenuptial agreement that specifically details what would happen to a couple’s pets in the event of a breakup.

In fact, according to a report issued by UK-based company Direct Line Pet Insurance, around a quarter of divorces in 2018 involved a pet custody dispute.

What’s more, in several cases, pet custody concerns were more of an issue than disputes over children or property.

The report, which surveyed 2 000 British pet owners and over 100 lawyers, found that in an average divorce case 25 hours of lawyers’ time involved the fate of a pet.

But the rise in pet-related custody conflicts isn’t just a trend in the UK.

Roy Bregman of Bregman Moodley Attorneys in Johannesburg isn’t all that surprised by the findings, explaining that he’d previously drawn up a divorce settlement which included custody arrangements for the estranged couple’s cats.

Celebrity divorce lawyer Robert Wallack, from the Wallack Firm in New York City, says he’s seen a significant increase in pet disputes over the past decade, particularly in the last five years.

He believes it’s a result of shifting societal norms.

“Nowadays we are seeing issues surrounding pets be included more frequently in a regular prenuptial agreement than in the past,” Wallack told the New York Post.

Millennials are less likely to be homeowners, car owners or have children than their Baby Boomer parents, and are more likely to be pet owners.

“Nowadays you do have couples who get married and don’t have kids and might just have a pet and then they treat that pet as a child. Then you see these articles about people who do all of these crazy over-the-top things for their pet and those that will spend a thousand dollars a month on pet food, things that weren’t so common in the past,” Wallack said.

And recent data certainly supports Wallack’s hypotheses.

A 2017 study from the New York-based Conference Board predicted that by the year 2025, the amount of money people spend on education will grow only 2%, while pet-related industries will spike 8%, Bloomberg News reported.

In addition, a 2018 survey in the US found that of the 1 500 millennials surveyed, 72% had pets, and 67% considered their pets to be their “fur babies”, USA Today reported.

So, with pet owners sacrificing so much time and money on their fur babies, it’s no wonder they want a little extra security and protection in the case of a relationship turning sour.

& Want to stake a claim over your pet in case of a nasty break-up?

Reenen Lombard, an attorney at SchoemanLaw Inc in Cape Town, gives us the lowdown on “pet-nups”.

& How does the law view pets?

The first thing to understand, explains Reenen, is that despite many people considering their fur babies to be children, in the eyes of the law pets are simply regarded as personal property. 

“It’s helpful here to point out that South African law view pets as no more than ‘mere’ property, and thus they must be treated as such,” he explains. 

“Therefore, a Golden Retriever is treated no differently than a 1959 Triumph T120 Bonneville or a rarefied first edition of Huxley’s Brave New World.”

& How can I ensure I won't lose my pet if we separate or get divorced?

According to Reenen, a simple option might be to enter into an antenuptial contract which clearly states who the owner of the pet is and who the pet will live with should the marriage fail.

“In this way the pets would then follow the original owners after the dissolution of the marriage.”

“If you’re already married, this depends on how you’re married, but you could then enter into an agreement whereby both parties agree as to what happens to the pets at divorce. The problem is that this agreement wouldn’t be enforceable, and the parties could change their minds at court.”

& What happens if the dispute is heard in court?

Should there be no agreement in place, the division of the matrimonial estate will be argued in court, Reenen says.

“The decision would be taken by the judge or magistrate who would have to be convinced as to who would be more deserving of the pet by balancing each party’s legal rights against the other as it relates to their claim to the pet.”

“Most divorces end with the parties reaching some form of negotiated agreement in the form of a deed of settlement. The terms of this settlement would then provide details as to who would take ownership of the pets.”

In situations where the couple also share children, he warns that things can become slightly more complicated.

“In a situation with children involved, who often have a close bond with the family pet, one would presume that the pet would follow the children.”

& What could a ‘pet-nup’ cost?

“Considering that our law doesn’t recognise the concept of a ‘pet-nup’ and owing to the extensive nature of what a ‘pet-nup’ might include, it would be difficult to estimate a cost without understanding the needs of each couple and their respective menagerie,” Reenen says.

He adds an agreement alone could cost anything from R2 000 to R5 000 or more depending on the complexity of the facts at hand.

Extra sources: Daily Mail, New York Post, USA Today, Bloomberg

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