Most people with pets come to think of their dogs, cats, or other companion animals as members of the family. Given the extremely strong attachment created between pets and their owners, a family pet can be a significant concern for couples facing a separation or divorce. People tend to think of pets similarly to children in this situation, and disputes can arise over which spouse or partner will “get custody” of the family pets following the breakdown of the relationship. However, the law in Ontario does not treat pets much differently than it does other personal property.
Since pets are treated as family property by Ontario’s family law courts, they are not granted special status when it comes time to determine who will retain ownership of the pet post-divorce. Ownership of the pet will be determined by factors such as which spouse had purchased or adopted the pet or which partner has borne more financial responsibility for the pet during its life with the family.
Pets and Separation in Ontario
The courts in Ontario have treated this issue in various ways, including determining the right of one spouse over the other to ownership of the pet. Factors which have been considered by the court include proof of purchase or adoption of the pet. If no such evidence is provided, other factors are considered, such as whether one spouse ordinarily pays for expenses (e.g. food and veterinary bills) and which spouse generally performs the daily caretaking for the pet (e.g. feeding and walks). There have also been cases where the court has declined to deal with this issue at all.
Setting Out Pet Custody in a Domestic Contract or Separation Agreement
To avoid uncertainty over ownership or “custody” of a pet, one option available to spouses who are cohabiting or married is that they can set out their expectations, obligations, and entitlements regarding the pet, in the event of a separation, in a domestic contract. Whether creating a cohabitation agreement or a marriage contract, a couple can specify how any number of issues will be dealt with should the relationship come to an end. This may include how the couple will deal with their family assets, including pets.
Rather than leaving the issue up to a judge, spouses and partners can take the time to set out a plan that works for them. Whether that plan involves sharing the care of a beloved pet, ensuring the pet remains with the children, or even financial contributions for long-term or high-cost expenses such as medical care, these details can be specified in a domestic contract. These domestic contracts are governed by provisions found in the Family Law Act. For the contract to be enforceable, its preparation and finalization must comply with the legislative provisions, including the formalities around the execution of the contract.
If no contract was signed before or during the cohabitation or marriage, a couple might still opt to include pet ownership details in a separation agreement if they are able to come to a consensus on the matter.
Contact Bortolussi Family Law in Vaughan for Knowledgeable Advice on Family Property & Domestic Contracts
The experienced and compassionate family lawyers at Bortolussi Family Law provide trusted advice on family property issues and help clients prepare comprehensive marriage contracts, cohabitation agreements, and separation agreements. We also regularly provide independent legal advice on domestic contracts drafted elsewhere prior to signing to ensure clients’ entitlements and rights are properly protected. To discuss your family law matter with a skilled family and divorce lawyer or to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team, please reach out to us online or call 416-987-3300.