Many people think about what will happen to their children in the event of a separation or divorce, particularly as it relates to child support or custody and access. But what about pets? Many pet owners think of their furry (or not furry) friends as family members. Unfortunately, the courts and the law don’t necessarily agree.

Pets as property

People tend to love their pets and treat them as members of their families, sometimes using the term “fur baby” to refer to their companions. However, one of the more surprising discoveries for pet owners is that in Alberta, pets are still considered personal property and are treated as such in the event of a separation or divorce.

This means that if there is no agreement in place prior to separation, Alberta courts will have to refer to the province’s property laws when determining who gets to keep a former couple’s pet. This means that the best interests of the pet are not relevant in deciding who gets to keep it.

The classification of pets as property also means that people are not able to request custody or access to the pet in the same way that they could their children. A court could provide each party in a separation the right to possess the pet on a rotating basis, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t the same as custody and access.

In common law

The closest Canadian courts have come to ruling on “pet custody” came from the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal where a couple looked to resolve ownership of their dog. The case was summarized by the Globe and Mail, which wrote, 

“…Two of the three justices who heard the appeal applied a traditional property analysis, determining that the person who purchased the dog was, by definition, its rightful owner. Dogs may be important, Justice Charles White wrote, but they are nonetheless property and their ownership should be determined according to standard property law principles.”

Being proactive

One way to get ahead of the frustrations that could come with determining what happens to a pet after a relationship ends is to include beloved pets in a domestic contract that outlines who the owner of the pet will be upon a breakdown of the relationship, treating it similarly to other personal property items such as cars. While this isn’t the type of topic people are excited to address when a relationship becomes serious (or a wedding is being planned), it could go a long way in easing tension and disputes down the road.

The team at Mincher Koeman is dedicated to providing experienced guidance through any family law issues no matter how complex they may be. We help our clients with domestic or marriage contracts as well as on issues relating to personal property in the event of a separation or divorce. Our exclusive focus on family law helps our clients navigate the emotional, expensive, and challenging moments a family law matter can present. If you have a family law issue that you need assistance with, please contact us online or by phone at (403) 901-3000 to talk today.

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