SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Forget the family silver or the car. Increasing numbers of couples who split up have a greater bone of contention — who gets the family pet?
With pets being treated more as one of the family than just an animal, the fate of Fido or Cuddles is becoming a growing problem which lawyers are taking on board, drafting “petimony” contracts and sparking a new focus on animal law issues.
Michelle Brown, a family law expert from Sydney firm Watts McCray, said it’s becoming more common for couples, particularly childless or heterosexual pairs, to share access to pets after they split but the law in most nations is not equipped for this.
The law in Australia, the United States and Britain for example, treats pets as property like furniture — and there’s no custody or visitation for an armchair — which has led to written agreements over custody or support being drawn up out of court.
“The outcome is always better if the couples can come to some arrangement as the only way pets can be dealt with legally are as items of property,” Brown told Reuters.
The trend has hit the headlines in recent years with several high-profile celebrity battles over pets.
Jake Gyllenhaal was reported to have kept German shepherd Atticus after splitting with Kirsten Dunst but the actress retained partial custody. Drew Barrymore was reported to have fought with her ex-husband Tom Green to keep labrador Flossie who once saved the couple by waking them up during a house fire.
But it’s not just celebrities squabbling over four-legged friends with lawyers reporting that the number of cases is growing although there are no figures to quantify this growth as most cases do not go to the courts.
Many couples manage to work out their own agreements for their pets or use mediators.
Take Australians Brendan Gribble and Amy Barclay, both of whom work in television.
The couple split up after over three years together but neither could bare to part with Jedda, their 13-year-old cross kelpi dog who came into the relationship with Gribble, even though it means driving 450 kms (280 miles) every four or five weeks to hand over the much loved animal.
“We just both share the love of the dog. Jedda has been an important part of my life because I’m a single parent. She’s always been there to protect my daughter if I’m working late,” Gribble told Reuters.
“It sounds crazy, I know, but I’m just happy to have her for three or four weeks at a time,” said Barclay.
Anne Hollonds, the head of Relationships Australia New South Wales, a non-profit organization focused on family dispute resolutions, said pets have taken on a more significant role in families due to the lower birth rate.
“So when a relationship splits up, then the pets are as important as the kids,” she told Reuters.
“The pets have historically gone with the children but there are now more couples without children who have pets so then it becomes an issue of which adult gets the pet.”
Lawyers said it was impossible to know how many petimony contracts were being drawn up with most done outside the courts.
Philip King, a Sydney solicitor at a family-owned firm, said the area of petimony was still new but there was a significant number of pets being named as beneficiaries in wills which was covered by the law.
“I often come across cases of people making a will and they’ve got a companion pet and might be living on their own so they make provision for the pet to be cared for by another person and leave a fund for this,” he said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith