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When Couples Divorce, Who Gets Fido? 'Pup Nups' Can Help

Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA®, CES™, President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Thanks to sheltering in place during the coronavirus crisis, many animal shelters are empty these days. The pet adoption boom we are currently seeing is heartwarming, and a silver lining to the more anxiety-producing aspects of COVID-19. However, as families expand by welcoming a new furry friend, they need to do more planning than just figuring out how to manage vet visits and provide animal socialization in a world that requires social distancing.

SEE ALSO: 10 Practical Tips to Make Divorce More Tolerable

"Pup nups" can help when animal owners' relationships end up on the rocks. Having this protection for your pet could be more important now than ever, considering the trends in divorce rates during these stressful times. China is reporting a record-high number of divorce requests in recent weeks, with some districts even maxing out the number of appointments available at local government offices. This trend is expected to reach the United States when the economy -- and divorce courts -- reopen.

Fighting for Pet Custody in Court

Divorce is not pretty. We've all heard the heart-wrenching stories of custody battles over children, but less commonly talked about are the fights over who will keep the family pet. More and more couples are ending up in court, battling over their pets. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 27% of the lawyers they surveyed noticed an uptick in the numbers of couples fighting over pet custody in the previous five years. Dogs seemed to ignite the most conflict, as 88% of the court cases involved pups. Cats trailed far behind at 5%; horses were involved in 1% of the cases; and the "other" category, including snakes and more, made up 6%.

There are many laws that safeguard our children and ensure they get the best care and support in custody decisions. However, protections for pets are non-existent. In divorce agreements, pets are considered to be personal property or a possession, like fine china or a couch, and, typically, the pet ownership would go to the spouse who initially paid for their animal companion. Recently, Alaska, California and Illinois passed legislation to ensure that pets are treated differently than property, and that their well-being gets taken into consideration during the custody battle.

Four pets each week end up in shelters in the United Kingdom as a result of a relationship breakdown, according to the animal charity Blue Cross. In some instances, the couple can't agree on who gets the pet, or, in a more disturbing scenario, one partner takes the dog or cat to a shelter as revenge on the other partner. Scheming spouses may also use the pet as a bargaining chip with the hopes that their partner will waiver on other important issues, such as finances.

Taking Proactive Measures for Pets' Sake

In an effort to prevent sad ramifications of the Wild West nature of this area of the law, some pet-adoption organizations have started to ask up front, when a couple is first adopting a pet, who will keep this new member of the family if the couple splits. And now, in addition to a regular prenuptial agreement, an engaged couple can also sign a prenuptial agreement for their pet. Such a "pup nup" is meant to protect more pets in the event of marital breakups and save couples thousands of dollars in legal fees in the event of a split.

See Also: Even Your Pet Needs an Estate Plan

According to Jaime Weiss, a seasoned matrimonial attorney who has seen many divorce cases involving beloved family pets, "Many clients are also keenly focused on the cost of pet care going forward: veterinarian expenses, doggie day care, boarding, grooming, toys, nutrition and dog walkers, to name a few. This has become big business and requires attention and allocation." Fortunately, a pup nup agreement would protect the couple's pet and ensure that it will receive ongoing support and care in a way that is agreed upon by both partners, in the event of a separation or divorce. Many couples have used pup nups to lay out split custody agreements and schedules, and in many cases, financial support for the pet, similar to child support.

The Pup Nup Thought Process

Families going through divorce can set up their pet's visitation schedule to sync with the custody schedule of their child. This can help a child navigate the divorce more easily, and not add to the trauma of being away from a comforting furry friend during an already stressful time. Although many parts of these agreements are not enforceable by the court, the beauty of the pup nup is that it lays out a game plan for the pet that was thought through in a calmer, less contentious moment, when the parties were probably only thinking of their pet's welfare, and not clouded by emotion.

This important document is meant to keep the stress of decision-making about the beloved family pet out of the cold courtroom and gives the family some guiding principles to follow in an area where guidelines -- for now at least -- are sorely lacking.

Drawing Up Your Own Pup Nup

In order to obtain a pup nup, couples can contact a matrimonial attorney. Although this is a relatively new type of legal document, an experienced lawyer should be able to help you put this planning in place. While there are websites that boast easy-to fill-out pup nup agreements, these documents can do more damage than good. The money that you save with a one-size-fits-all online form could end up costing you down the line in the form of expensive litigation and court fees. The fill-in-the-blank online forms do not always say what you think they say, and boilerplate forms cannot be tailored to your specific situation and your pet's needs.

Unfortunately, some states may not be able to uphold pet custody agreements yet. If this is the case for where you live, the two members of the separating couple must decide how to move forward and whether they choose to honor the agreement they originally put in place.

Like every other member of the family, pets are not excluded from the consequences of divorce. We must do what we can to protect their well-being for their entire lives.

See Also: How Do You 'Win' at Divorce? Stay Out of Court

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