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Why can’t I have custody of the dog?

Written by

Karen Bowey


Published on

March 13, 2023

Karen Bowey, a chartered legal executive in our family team discusses how a beloved pet is treated in the same way as a fridge freezer in English family law.

I was interested to read that one-half of Ant and Dec (being Ant McPartlin) is being taken back to court by his former wife, Lisa Armstrong for full-time “custody” of their beautiful chocolate Labrador. Previously, it seems, during their divorce proceedings, they had reached an agreement as to “shared care” of their beloved pooch, but now that circumstances have changed – Ant has two dogs with his now wife – Ms Armstrong wants full-time care. It made me think about how pets are treated in divorce proceedings in England and Wales. Contrary to some other jurisdictions – we are, in my view, behind – in English family law, a pet is a chattel – a thing – like a fridge freezer, the TV or that hideous vase that might have been a present from someone. A pet is therefore treated as such, and you won’t find a family court in this jurisdiction making findings as to which household the pet may enjoy a better standard of living.

Only in January 2022 did Spanish law change to recognise pets as sentient beings. This has resulted in pets within divorce proceedings being treated like children in that the pet’s welfare will be considered before the court orders where it is to live. This even goes so far as to consider how a pet has been treated by a party during the marriage when deciding matters relating to children.

Even in the USA, many states are slowly recognising that pets cannot be treated the same as chattels.

For the time being, we have to apply the law we have. It follows, therefore, that reaching an agreement with your ex as to arrangements for a pet can only be a good thing. Mediation is an ideal way of resolving issues and I would certainly recommend it as a forum for such discussions. Of course if you want to think ahead, you could prepare a “pet-nup” – a bit like a pre-nuptial agreement but, naturally, for your pets.

It would record what you agree between you should happen to your pets should your relationship come to an end. Without knowing the ins and outs of the McPartlin/Armstrong financial settlement, it’s difficult to assess how an application back to court can be made. We can only hope that sense prevails, that an agreement is reached, and that Hurley (the dog) doesn’t have his life turned upside down by it.

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