28,500 ‘Pet Divorces’ a year

Last Updated on: 22nd November 2023, 12:45 pm

  • 28,500 divorce cases a year involve custody of a pet – equating to 90 every day
  • Ownership confusion: Lawyers state ownership of a pet is decided by who is listed as owner, while pet owners believe it is who is the primary caregiver
  • Some pet owners would go to extreme lengths in the event of a break up – shockingly, even having the pet put down

New research from Direct Line Pet Insurancereveals28,530 of 111,089 divorce cases in the last year involved custody of a pet, equating to some 90 disputes each day.  The issue has been thrust into the public eye due to the custody battle between Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong over their dog Hurley.

In an attempt to avoid conflict, Brits are turning to ‘pet nups,’ pre-nuptial agreements involving custody of a pet in the event of a break up.  Family lawyers report there has been a 24 per cent increase in requests for them to draw up pre-nuptial agreements involving custody or care of a pet in the last three years. Owners are seeking to protect their pets as they would their most valuable assets.

Pets are often seen as one of the most important aspects of a divorce settlement. In most divorce cases where a pet is involved, they are prioritised over access to pension funds (88 per cent), while in nearly a third of cases (30 per cent), pets are prioritised over rights to savings and investments. In one in eight cases (12 per cent) they are fought over more keenly than over custody rights to the children.

Table one: How pets are prioritised within divorce settlements

 Item within a divorce settlement Percentage of people who prioritise pets over this
Pension 88%
Furniture, electrical goods or other household items 86%
Car or other vehicle 63%
Jewellery, painting or collectibles 38%
Savings and investments 30%
Children 12%

Source: Direct Line Pet Insurance 2019

It is not surprising that around 13.7 million adults2 (26 per cent) would consider setting up a pet nuptial agreement to decide who would be given custody in the event of a break up. Young people are most open to setting up such an arrangement; two fifths (41 per cent) of 18-34-year olds would consider a pet nup, compared to just one in seven (15 per cent) of those over 55.

If fighting for legal custody of a pet, people first need to understand what constitutes ownership. According to family lawyers, pets are legally viewed as property, with the owner being the person who purchased the pet, although courts may give consideration based on the primary caregiver.  The courts can even decide whether a pet should be shared or sold, leaving the owners to split the money.

Family lawyers are now spending a great deal of time consulting on pet custody. On average, family lawyers spend 25 hours per divorce case discussing an animal because a couple are fighting over access to the pet. This works out as more than three days’ solid work. Just under a quarter of cases (23 per cent) family lawyers have dealt with involved joint custody of the animal.

Vanessa Lloyd-Platt, divorce lawyer at Lloyd Platt & Co Divorce Solicitors said: “The huge increase in disputes over animals prompted us to draw up the world’s first pet-nuptial agreement a few years ago, which is more in demand now than ever before. The focus of this agreement is to plan for what should occur if a relationship breaks down. It deals with the living arrangements for the pet, how the animal is fed, exercised and cared for. There should also be consideration for financial details such as insurance, what happens if an animal is ill, who should be notified, what happens during holidays and ultimately who is responsible.

“Every aspect of a pet nuptial agreement should be focussed on the pet’s welfare although owner’s need to remember that pets are regarded as chattels4 in law, so who paid for the pet can have a strong pull for the Court.”

In the event of a break up, owners would consider several options when deciding what happens to their pet. This ranges from setting up a financial agreement (53 per cent) and shared custody (47 per cent), to more extreme and unsettling lengths like taking the pet to a shelter or rescue centre (25 per cent) or selling it (17 per cent). Shockingly, more than one in six (16 per cent) would even consider having their pet put down.

Table two: Lengths pet owners would go to in event of splitting with a partner

Behaviour Percentage who have done this, or would consider doing this
Setting up a financial agreement to look after my pet 53%
Shared custody of the pet 47%
Giving up ownership of the pet to my partner 46%
Paying my partner for full ownership of the pet 45%
Giving the pet to a friend or family member 41%
Giving the pet to a shelter or rescue centre 25%
Selling the pet 17%
Having the pet put down 16%

Source: Direct Line Pet Insurance 2019

Unfortunately, the stress of a break up or divorce can have a negative impact on pets, as it can on adults and children involved too. One in seven (14 per cent) owners believes their pet’s health has been negatively affected by the breakdown of a relationship. While most don’t require medication for this, one in sixteen pets (six per cent) has needed treatment as a result of such stress.

Prit Powar, Head of Pet Insurance at Direct Line, said: “A break up or divorce is a really stressful time for everyone involved, including the pets that often pick up on their owner’s emotions. Like children, pets benefit from routine and a breakdown of a relationship often means moving home or moving between homes which can be a big upheaval.

“Given how important pets are within a family it is not surprising that so many people fight for custody, however, we urge owners to consider what is ultimately best for their pet’s wellbeing when making any decisions. Whoever takes custody of the pet needs to let their insurer know so their pet is registered at the correct address and under the correct name in case they need to make a claim.”

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