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  1. Wealth
July 16, 2022

Why HNW couples should think about pet custody before they separate

By Rory Sachs

Sometimes, when divorcing HNW couples have discussions over pet custody, beastly dilemmas ensue. Rory Sachs explores the growing trend of ‘petnups’

A magazine article on the subject of ‘petnups’ — that is, agreements pertaining to the postnuptial care of cats, dogs, horses and other animals — could easily descend into a menagerie of howlingly awful animal puns. But for many people, especially HNWs, they are no laughing matter. 

The issue has come to the fore in recent years thanks to some high-profile disputes. In 2020, when TV presenter Ant McPartlin and his ex-wife Lisa Armstrong finalised the settlement of their £31 million divorce, a judge ruled the pair should share custody of their chocolate labrador Hurley. The 2016 split between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard featured a dispute concerning their Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo. 

Ant and Dec walking dog pet custody
A judge ruled Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong should share custody of their chocolate labrador Image: Getty

Under English law, pets are deemed to be possessions. As a result, explains Howard Kennedy associate Jazmin Brown, HNW couples should seriously consider making prudent arrangements for their four-legged friends as part of a prenup, postnup or standalone agreement. ‘English courts view pets as chattels,’ says Brown, adding that, unlike in Spain and California, where the welfare of an animal will be considered when orders are made, judges in England will simply leave it up to the parties to make decisions about animals’ care arrangements. 

Petnups don’t just govern who the pet will live with, however. Things become more complicated when you consider that animals can be used for breeding, says Izzy Walsh, a partner at Hall Brown. ‘There are a whole bunch of other questions about choice of mate, when and who gets to have what puppies… and whether or not they would get involved in any artificial insemination.’ 

What’s more, the cost of keeping canine companions in the style to which they have become accustomed can quickly mount up. Richard Collins of Keystone Law says this is evident when he walks past the pet salons that have sprung up in Notting Hill. ‘It’s not just your dog getting shampooed — there’s a whole wall full of really expensive accessories… If you wanted to blow some money, it’s not hard,’ he laughs. 

‘We’ve had requests about social media,’ Brown says, telling of clients who wish to prevent their former spouse from posting pooch pics online. Agreements can even go as far as giving co-owners the ‘right of first refusal’, Brown adds. ‘If you’ve got the dog Saturday and Sunday, and you’re suddenly called into work, you’d have a responsibility to ring me to check if I’m free to take the pet, before you take it to your mum’s house.’

Dogs might be the most common source of post-martial conflict, but more exotic animals often bring about more complex problems. Brown says she’s seen ‘people with exotic pets requiring quite substantial outbuildings’. Horses can be highly lucrative for their owners, but the fact that they can also incur large costs presents tough challenges for divorcing equestrians, says Walsh, a specialist in the field. She recounts a difficult case where a successful rider had to give up ownership of their horse as part of a wider financial settlement. 

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Given the devotion often shown to pets by children, Walsh says that ‘each party thinks that they will be prejudiced if they don’t have the dog, because the children might not love being at their home.’ While Collins says it’s not uncommon for pets to be treated as bargaining chips in financial settlements, Brown is eager for HNWs to appeal to reason. ‘We have had animals removed without permission. Somebody comes back from work and suddenly the tortoise is gone,’ she says. 

Brown is passionate about animal welfare and is motivated by recent statistics from the animal charity Blue Cross, which takes in around four dogs a week as a result of relationship breakdown. ‘It’s why pet-nuptial agreements are so important,’ she says. ‘The idea is that responsible owners, at the point of purchasing an animal, will sit down and have those conversations in the event that they separate’.

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