The divorce of Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong has been hitting the headlines recently. The couple is seeking divorce after being together for years. Most modern divorce cases entail discussion about child custody and division of assets and, more frequently, who wins custody of the family pet.
According to the Daily Mail as well as several other news sources, the McPartlins are battling for the custody of Hurley, their five-year-old chocolate Labrador. Both Ant and Lisa are said to be significantly emotionally attached to Hurley, and as part of their divorce settlement, they plan to formally share his custody.
Pet Custody Battles are Becoming more Common
The McPartlin story is not the first time the issue of pet custody has made the news. In her 2010 divorce from Ashley, Cheryl Cole won custody of their Chihuahuas. Johnny Depp’s separation from Amber Heard resulted in arguments over who should keep their Yorkshire Terriers. Other celebrity couples who have reportedly gone to war over pet custody include Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton and Kate Moss and Jamie Hince. However, custody battles over pets are not just for the rich and famous. The Express recently reported that UK lawyers are seeing an increase in divorcing couples fighting for the right to keep their beloved furry family member.
What Does the Law Say?
It seems that over the past five years or so, the issue of pet custody has become more visible. This effect is likely in keeping with the rise of two-income couples with no children but with the shared care of a pet. Under the current legal system of England and Wales, pets are treated as property, despite the fact that many people consider their pets like a valued member of their family. Their owners invest time and emotion into their pet’s care, so when it comes to deciding custody as part of the divorce, the issue can be fraught with stress and conflict. It is important that family courts are tuned into this attachment and sensitively handle any pet custody disputes and arrangements.
New US Laws Recognise the Significant Status of Pets
Perhaps the UK courts may find themselves reviewing the legal status of pets, just as recently happened in Alaska and Illinois. As reported in The Washington Post, in 2017, Alaska became the first state in the USA to require courts to ‘take into consideration the well-being of the animal’. Then, on the 1st January 2018, a change to Illinois state law followed suit. The result of this legislative change is that in Alaska and Illinois, animals have a status above that of mere property. Now judges in these states have more discretion when it comes to deciding where a pet should live: this decision can include the option of joint ownership with shared care, allocating the animal to one partner over the other and finally, access arrangements.
Yes, this is a thing. Pre-pups are legally binding contracts that determine from the outset who will keep the pet on the event of a separation or divorce. While it is certain that most couples do not embark on a relationship with the end already in sight, perhaps for some, a pre-pup could become as essential as a prenup. Certainly, this would mitigate against protracted and expensive court battles such as the case of Gigi Perkins, a pointer/greyhound cross, whose custody battle cost her estranged ‘parents’ thousands of dollars.
Staying Together for the Sake of …the Dog
A 2017 survey of 2000 pet owners, conducted by a major pet insurance company, found that 15% of couples who were on the verge of separating, chose to stay together for the sake of their pet cat or dog. Of this 15%, a third said they could not decide who should take custody of their pet, and 25% said that taking the animal to a pet shelter was not an option. The emotional consideration was not just for themselves – their pet’s emotional wellbeing was also a serious consideration, to the extent that in some cases the owner’s emotional health was sacrificed as secondary to that of their pet.
So what now?
In practical terms, our pets are placed in a similar position to other family members, including children, no matter how the current UK law stands on the matter. Some would argue that the current legal definition of pets as property is outdated and contrary to the laws around animal rights. In the meantime, the issue of pet custody in divorce proceedings remains an emotive subject and shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
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