It happens all the time: a couple starts getting serious and may start making major purchases together. For some couples it may be furniture or a car, but many couples also choose to purchase or adopt a pet. While the relationship is going smoothly, everything is fine; but what happens when the couple breaks up? A big problem that arises in a breakup or divorce is where the pet will go. According to recent stories in the news, custody cases involving pets are on the rise in the United States. You might know of someone who went through this issue after a breakup – the former couple ends up disagreeing on whom the pet actually belongs to and who should get to keep it. However, it is possible to address these concerns in a prenuptial agreement, preventing hostile and potentially costly disagreement in the event of a breakup.
Much like other possible areas of contention, the custody of the family pet can be addressed in the couple’s prenuptial agreement. It is important to note that although it is not unusual for a family pet to be considered a member of the family, the law, itself, addresses animals as property. People have sought to change these laws, but as it currently stands in New York (and the rest of the country), pets are considered personal property.
The question remains: if a couple purchases or adopts a pet together and then breaks up, what happens to the pet? Like other items of property to be divided between you and your former partner, your shared pet may be included in the distribution of assets. Because many couples view their pet as a part of the family, more and more people are opting to include a pet custody section in their prenuptial agreement. As I’ve discussed in other blogs, prenuptial agreements can be uniquely tailored to each couple’s situation. Some couples may opt to draft a visitation schedule for the pet, similar to a child custody agreement. However, because pets are considered property, there are no laws concerning visitation rights for an animal, which makes the prenuptial agreement that much more important. It is not clear that the courts will enforce pet custody clauses. As cases are presented to the courts, laws may be put into place to guide us. Of course, if both parties are dealing in good faith with each other, it may make sense to develop a workable plan that both parties accept rather than have a third party decide Fido’s fate. (Here, Fido represents all pets.)
In addition to custody of the pet and a daily schedule, the couple may want to plan for vacations and holidays, travel arrangements, doggie daycare, food, grooming, and Veterinarian care. While these conversations may be difficult, it may avoid a future heartbreak knowing in advance how things will work. It will also save a great deal of money if the couple can reach a mutually agreeable decision rather than have the issue included in divorce proceedings.
Much like prenuptial agreements in general, each couple will have different priorities. When it comes to pets, the issues and preferences tend to be extremely personal and important, which means that it is important to have an open discussion with your partner about how you would each like to proceed.