Pets are part of the family! If you have a family pet, you can appreciate just how important they are in your life and your children’s lives. If you’re going through separation or divorce, then it’s likely that you’ll need to consider what will happen to your pet(s). In this article we’ll look at how we deal with the family pet in separation or divorce, and steps that you can take to ensure that your wishes regarding your pet are fulfilled.
Canadian law views pets as property – just like an armchair, a vehicle, or a computer. This means they are subject to the same rules of property division upon a relationship breakdown. Therefore, The key issue to be determined by a judge is to identify which spouse owns the pet. This means considering who paid for the pet, and who pays for the majority of expenses. Or, if the pet was acquired before the relationship, this will be strong evidence to show that the pet will be excluded from family property and should remain with the spouse who originally purchased the pet. It is also possible for a court to decide that a pet is jointly owned. This may mean that the court will order that one party buys the other party out, or if there are multiple pets, an order that each party keeps a pet.
However, the treatment of pets in the law does not appreciate the deep bonds that people build with their pets, and a property ownership approach leaves many pet owners feeling unsatisfied. In recent years, some provinces have shifted towards more holistic considerations, especially given that Covid-19 saw an upward shift in pet ownership. For instance, in British Columbia, judges are increasingly likely to consider what is in the best interest of the pet, such as who can dedicate more time to the pet, and whether the pet is bonded with another animal or human. There have also been proposed amendments to the British Columbia Family Law Act, that would consider more of the “relational aspects” of animals in the family. In Ontario, case law has also evolved, with judges looking at who has spent more time with the pet, including who takes the dog for walks, cares for the pet, buys the food, and accompanies the pet on vet visits. In some cases, Judges in Ontario have also considered the children’s attachment to a pet, and determined the pet schedule around where the kids are, whether that means the pet stays in one household, or changes households with the custody schedule. Decisions from other provinces can be persuasive considerations for judges here in Manitoba.
How can I protect my rights regarding the family pet?
While the law is shifting in a paw-sitive direction, it remains that pets are property. Therefore, keeping documentation that can prove ownership and ongoing payments towards the pet’s care is very important. This includes things like the ownership papers, information on the pet license, vet bills, and bank statements.
It is also worth considering creating a “pet-nup”, detailing what contributions have been made for the pet and what will happen with the pet upon a relationship breakdown. These details can be included in a written cohabitation or prenuptial agreement.
If there is no cohabitation or prenuptial agreement already in place prior to separation, one of the simplest, and most common ways to ensure your interests are protected is through a written separation agreement. This will also help to avoid lengthy and costly court battles over the family pet in the future. These agreements will typically include things like visitation schedules, rules outlining how costs will be shared, and obligations regarding nutrition and health decisions.
If you are facing an immediate dilemma regarding the removal of your beloved pet from your care, there may also be other immediate relief available to you as well, such as an interim order of possession or a legal or equitable claim of ownership.
Whether you are simply looking to protect yourself in case of a future breakup, or are in the process of a separation, our family team is here to help you ensure that your beloved pet stays a part of your life!