Modern Pet Parenting and the Rise of the Petnup

by | Sep 23, 2022 | Insights

A trend that has been gaining traction since before the COVID crisis fundamentally changed the legal landscape may be gaining further ground in the realities of families around the country. The center of that trend is the unsung glue of many American family units, a focal point for children and parents alike – the family pets.

To those of us fortunate enough to have a home resplendent with pet fur, and floors covered with chew toys, tennis balls, catnip treats and half-destroyed stuffed animals, the family pets are an incredibly important piece of our daily lives. When so much in the world outside the four walls of our home still feels fraught with danger and uncertainty (or quite literally on fire), the unconditional love and affection that our four-legged (or finned or hooved or winged) companions can be a much needed and cherished respite from a fractured and uncertain reality.

Even in the most “normal” of circumstances, when the world does not seem so out of sync, pets have been an important part of life, and many families treat their pets as more than mere property. They are family members, too, with many of the privileges that accompany that membership. Recent research has demonstrated with some regularity that younger people have made conscious decisions to have pets instead of children — and this trend is not likely to dissipate any time soon. And the law has taken notice.

Not too long ago, states began recognizing how family pets can become targets in domestic violence cases, and those states (California among them) have taken steps to allow survivors of domestic violence to also ask for protection for the four-legged members of the family. Though this seems like a no-brainer to those of us who have embraced pets as full-fledged members of our families, until this recent shift, the courts really were left with only one option — that animals are property and cannot be treated as anything but property when a family is in crisis. This approach is very much at odds with the goals of many families who seek the best for not only the humans in the home, but also the animals whose love and comfort means so much to them.

And so the march toward a more holistic “Best Interest of the Pets” standard has begun.

This is a very common standard in the child custody and parenting realm (the “best interests of the child” is nearly always the most important consideration when determining long term parenting plans and other kid-centric legal issues), and the application of that standard to the family pets makes perfect sense. Many of us treat our pets as children (Halloween costumes, holiday outfits, pictures with Santa or the Easter Bunny, trips to the pumpkin patch, themed birthday parties — I could go on), and when planning family decisions, those children should also be part of the chemistry in sound decision making. Enter the Petnup.

A Petnup is exactly what it sounds like — it’s a Prenup for pets.

A Petnup is a document designed to lay out in specific terms how the pet parents would like to raise these furry (or scaly or feathered) family members, what kinds of health care the pet should receive, the furniture the pet is and isn’t allowed on, what kind of obedience training is expected (professional or otherwise). And, importantly, what decisions should be made around quality of life — and end of life. The decision to let your family member cross the Rainbow Bridge is difficult under the best of circumstances. And as with any difficult decision, an early discussion when the pressures and grief of the moment are not distorting our thinking and processing speed can help shape the moment into something far more thoughtful, kind and humane, especially when your veterinarian knows how to approach an issue for a particular animal. Not an easy discussion, true. But an important one, and one that should be given the time and care your pet deserves.

And if nothing else, working on a Petnup, especially one that is incorporated into a broader Premarital Agreement, can start an important conversation that you should have with your partner about expectations, about enrichment, and about how you want your lives together to be. Involving our cherished family members — our unconditionally loving pet children — in those decisions is the least we can do for them.

Many couples are adding pets to traditional prenuptial agreements.

Like a prenup, a well-crafted Petnup may provide peace of mind for both parties — think visitation plans, financial responsibilities, care, and well-being commitments in light of death or divorce. While everyone wants their relationships to last, the future is alarmingly unpredictable. By planning ahead in love and in life, our worst-case scenarios may be resolved with less grief and more grace. Petnups are becoming more common for very good reasons. They’re good for our pets, and they’re good for our pet parents, and they definitely meet the Best Interests of the Pet standard.

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 22, 2020, issue of Outward magazine.