Why HNW Couples Should Think About Pet Custody Before Breaking Up

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

A magazine article on the topic of “petnups”—that is, agreements regarding post-marital care for cats, dogs, horses, and other animals—could easily descend into a menagerie of howling horrible puns about animals. 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, as TV presenter Ant McPartlin and his ex-wife Lisa Armstrong finalized their £31 million divorce settlement, a judge ruled that the couple had to share custody of their chocolate Labrador Hurley. The 2016 split between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard featured a dispute over their Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo.

A judge ruled that Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong must share custody of their chocolate labrador Image: Getty

Under English law, pets are considered property. As a result, explains Howard Kennedy contributor Jazmin Brown, HNW couples should seriously consider making sensible arrangements for their four-legged friends as part of a prenup, prenup, or stand-alone agreement. “English courts consider pets to be movable property,” says Brown, adding that, unlike in Spain and California, where an animal’s welfare is considered when orders are given, judges in England will simply leave it up to the parties to make decisions about animal care arrangements.

However, petnups don’t just determine who the pet will live with. It gets more complicated when you consider that animals can be used for breeding, says Izzy Walsh, partner at Hall Brown. “There are a lot of other questions about mate choice, when and who gets which puppies…and whether or not they would be involved in artificial insemination.”

In addition, the cost of keeping canine companions in the style they have become accustomed to can add up quickly. Richard Collins of Keystone Law says this becomes clear when he walks past the pet salons that have been set up in Notting Hill. “It’s not just your dog that gets shampooed – there’s a whole wall full of really expensive accessories… If you want to ruin some money, it’s not hard,” he laughs.

“We’ve been getting requests on social media,” Brown says of clients who want to prevent their ex-husbands from posting pictures of dogs online. Agreements can even go as far as giving co-owners the “right of first refusal,” Brown adds. “If you have the dog Saturday and Sunday, and you are suddenly called to work, you would be responsible for calling me to check if I can take the pet before you take it to your mother’s house.”

Dogs may be the most common source of post-war conflict, but more exotic animals often cause more complex problems. Brown says she’s seen “people with exotic pets who needed pretty large outbuildings.” Horses can be very lucrative for their owners, but the fact that they can also incur high costs presents a major challenge for parting riders, says Walsh, a specialist in the field. She tells of a difficult case where a successful rider had to give up ownership of his horse as part of a wider financial scheme.

Given the devotion children often show to pets, Walsh says that “every party thinks they will be prejudiced if they don’t have the dog because the kids may not like being at home with them.” While Collins says it’s not uncommon for pets to be treated like bargaining chips in financial settlements, Brown likes HNWs to appeal to reason. “We have had animals removed without permission. Someone comes back from work and suddenly the turtle is gone,” she says.

Passionate about animal welfare, Brown is motivated by recent statistics from the animal charity Blue Cross, which takes in about four dogs a week due to a broken relationship. “That’s why pet prenuptial agreements are so important,” she says. “The idea is that responsible owners, when they buy an animal, sit down and have those conversations when they break up.”

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