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Aussie Couples Are Signing 'Petnups' To Avoid Fights Over Who Gets To Keep Fur Babies

Lawyers say it's becoming increasingly common for couples to sign pet prenups -- or 'petnups' -- to avoid fights over who gets to keep their shared animal if they break up.

According to the Pet Industry Association Australia, more than 62 percent of Aussie households own a pet -- 38 percent have dogs while 29 percent have cats.

Many Australians love their four-legged friends as though they're human members of our family, but when divorce or relationship breakdown occurs claws can come out. 

"We see this daily -- and I'm not exaggerating," Nicholas Stewart, partner at Dowson Turco Lawyers told 10 daily.

"Pets play a significant role in our lives and when a relationship breaks down all hell can break loose. I've seen really protracted and expensive legal fights over pets wherein both parties claim a special connection with the animal," he added.

READ MORE: Pet Owners Share The One Thing They'd Tell Their Furry Bundles Of Joy

That's where something called a 'petnup' could come in handy. According to a UK law firm, one in 20 British couples has a written petnup which states who will get to keep their shared animal if they ever split.

While Stewart and his team have never been asked to draw up a standalone petnup for an Aussie client, he did say that pets are "almost always" included in a clause of a standard prenup.

FYI -- in Australia, a  prenuptial agreement or 'prenup' is technically called a Binding Financial Agreement -- BFA for short -- according to the Family Law Act.

Like a prenup, a BFA is a legally binding financial agreement between two people who intend to marry or live together in a de facto relationship.

The lay of the law

As much as we love them, under Australian law pets are considered to be property and in a BFA are lumped in with things like a couple's bank account, real estate, personal property, clothing and furniture.

In NSW, in particular, a pet can have only one registered owner and according to Stewart they're the one who is more likely to be awarded "primary rights" to the animal -- whether or not they want (or deserve) them.

But it's often not as clear-cut as that -- as couples who share a pet tend to share responsibilities like walking, grooming, and vet and food expenses.

The person who isn't the animal's registered owner may be able to gain primary rights if they can prove in a court that they have significantly contributed to looking after the pet.

In a US-first, Alaskan courts began taking this "respectful" approach in 2017 with an amendment to its divorce law that empowers judges to consider the "well-being of the animal" in custody disputes involving nonhuman family members.

Amending the law to give pets equal standing to children, however, is not the answer said Stewart.

"That would clog up the courts and be an expensive cost to society," he said.

Petnups in practice

Sarah* has shared Stella, a malamute cross samoyed, with her ex-partner for the past three years.

Despite being skeptical about owning a dog at first Sarah eventually caved to her partner's wishes.

"Not thinking anything about it at the time, I told him that if we happened to break-up down the track, Stella would have to live with him," she told 10 daily.

Sarah's partner thought she was joking at first -- until she sent him a text message stating the above.

A while later they did break up but according to Sarah, there was never an issue with Stella.

"From day one, [my ex-partner] was happy to take her full-time and he gave me visiting access whenever I wanted, all I had to do was text him," she said.

I was living in an apartment so I couldn't look after her for any stint of time but I'd often take her for walks several times a week.

Three years later, nothing has changed -- despite both of them having moved on with new long-term partners.

"I'd absolutely recommend a similar sort of 'petnup' for pet owners. While we hoped Stella would be with us for a lifetime, that conversation turned out to be a safety net for us both when things didn't work out."

*Sarah's name has been changed.

READ MORE: Don't Shout At Your Dog, And Other Pet Owner Fails

Making it official

Stewart told 10 daily that he certainly sees petnups -- or pet-specific clauses in prenups -- becoming the norm.

If you are documenting a prenup and it talks about animals it has to be done properly under the Family Law Act -- you must take it to a lawyer for independent legal advice with full financial disclosure.

He recommends all couples -- whether they're married or dating -- have a BFA in place if they're planning on co-owning property (pets included.)

Yes, it's an exxy exercise. A BFA costs $5,000 to $10,000 -- but fighting it out in court will cost more. As in, a minimum of $30 000 to $100 000 more.

"I have seen people go to great monetary lengths to keep their pets," Stewart said.

Feature image: Getty.