Separation/Divorce: Who gets the family pet?
A separation can be difficult for all members of the family; the family pet is no exception. Many people may be surprised when they go to court seeking to find a fair way to share the family dog, cat, or other pet, that it is treated like property, not family. The courts have set out several factors that will determine how pets are treated (Oh v City of Coquitlam, 2018 BCSC 986):
- pets will not be treated in a manner such as children;
- courts are unlikely to consider interim applications for pet ownership;
- Canadian Courts are unlikely to find that joint sharing or some form of constructive trust remedy is appropriate; and
- that pets are a variant of personal property.
While pets are personal property, they are treated differently than a car or a piece of furniture. There is a requirement that animals, especially cats and dogs, be treated humanely. A court will not award ownership of a pet to a person if it would result in abuse or neglect. Apart from that, the courts will only consider who has legal ownership, not who has the most affection for the pet or treats it better. Courts will not create visitation or joint custody arrangements for pets.
Legal ownership will usually be determined by who owns the pet or who brought it into the relationship. This usually is done by looking at who is the registered owner on the pet’s certificate or who paid for the pet. A person can also show legal ownership if they prove that the pet was gifted to them.
This cut and dry approach might make people think that all judges are heartless, but there are dog lovers on the bench too. In 2018, Justice Lois Hoegg of the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal dissented when the majority of the court relied on the above approach for determining who got the family dog (Baker v Hamina, 2018 NLCA 15). She thought that when two people contest the ownership of a pet, the court should consider additional factors, including:
- who bore the burden of the care and comfort of the animal;
- who paid for the expenses of the animal’s upkeep; and
- what happened to the animal after the relationship between the contestants changed.
The best way to ensure that your pet is treated like family and not property is to resolve that issue before it goes to court. If you would like to book an appointment with any of our family law lawyers, please contact Heath Law LLP at 250-753-2202.