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What happens to the family pet in a divorce?

Pets are real parts of many families. Just look at all the posts on social media about people’s “fur babies.” According to estimates from the Canadian Animal Health Institute, in 2014, about one-third of Canadian households included cats or dogs, specifically: 

  • Cats: 7 million households
  • Dogs: 6.4 million households 

Pets, while obviously not human children, do have important roles in many families: companions, partners in play, therapeutic helpers and more. They are living creatures that require human care and with which people develop loving relationships. Not surprisingly, the family pet can become a matter of contention in divorce. 

Some people may want “custody” of their pets after divorce or an arrangement for “access” time to spend time with the animal after the households have split into two. However, the law views pets as property, so these custodial concepts that apply to children are not relevant from a legal standpoint. Rather, pet ownership will be determined under the laws that apply to property division in divorce, should the issue end up in court before a judge. 

However, a divorcing couple can negotiate an agreement about how their pet will be owned and cared for after the marriage. If they desire, it can contain provisions that are similar to the kinds of arrangements made for children. For example, they could trade off keeping the pet every other week, or one of them could have the pet for the summer only or for every other weekend. They could even agree to split veterinary bills going forward. 

In Alberta, if divorcing spouses do not enter into an agreement, the judge will have to decide who will own the pet after the divorce under the laws of property division in divorce. This may be of concern to the spouses since in an extreme case, it is possible that the judge could order the dog or cat sold and the proceeds divided — something that might be the furthest from what either party would want.    

According to a recent article in LawNow, under Alberta law, it is more likely that the judge would find that the pet is a “household good” that could be given to one or the other spouse for his or her “use” after divorce. 

Discuss your concerns about your pet with your divorce lawyer to understand your legal options and make decisions most likely to address those concerns.  

 

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