Pet Custody - What Happens To Companion Animals After Divorce?

It's usually a bitter pill for pet owners to swallow: their furry friends are members of the family, but the law views them as property.

As yet, there's no specific Ontario family law legislation to determine the fate of the family dog, cat or goldfish when their masters separate. A couple can try to fight it out in court, but attempts to seek a pet custody or support order may produce unanticipated results - and probably undesirable ones at that.

A Matter Of Ownership - Not Best Interests

In child custody disputes, a judge makes a decision based on the best interests of the child. This is not the case with domestic pets.

Animals are considered property. So, when a family breaks down, disputing parties are likely to see their animals divvied up not much differently from the kitchen table or armchairs.

Under Ontario law, family property is divided 50/50 between divorcing parties. However, property that was acquired before the marriage may stay with the original owner following the separation. So, if Fido and spouse came as a package deal from the outset, an ex- will likely say goodbye to both spouse and pet.

As with all other litigated property disputes, the original pet owner must be prepared to provide proof of ownership - such as purchase or adoption papers. In the absence of this and other supporting proofs, the situation can become murky if the non-owner spouse turned out to be the pet's primary caregiver during the marriage.

An Out-Of-Court Solution May Be Best

Treating pets as property may seem increasingly antiquated. But, unless the tide of popular opinion eventually provokes a change in the law, keeping pets out of litigation may be the wisest course.

An alternative route such as mediation may provide a more cooperative, less-rigid context in which to settle pet-related issues. In mediation, ex-spouses can have greater flexibility to contemplate the best interests of the pet and create customized solutions for custody, visitation and financial support.


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