Understanding Pet Ownership in Ontario: Navigating Pet Custody in Separation or Divorce
When a couple decides to separate or divorce, their beloved family pet can become an additional source of conflict due to the strong attachment that often exists between pets and their owners. Contrary to popular belief, pets in Ontario are not treated the same as children. Instead, they are treated similarly to personal property under Ontario law.
Pets as property in Ontario
Pets are not awarded any special status when it comes to deciding who gets to keep them because of separation or divorce. The case law on this issue points towards the ownership of the pet
being determined based on several factors. As outlined by J. Baltman in Coates v. Dickson, 2021 ONSC 992, the court will look at the following non-exhaustive list of factors when determining the ownership of the pet:
Whether one of the people owned or possessed the animal before their relationship began;
At the time the animal was acquired or afterwards, any express or implied agreement as to
The nature of the relationship between the people contesting ownership at the time the animal was first required;
Who purchased and/or raised the animal;
Who exercised care and control of the animal;
Who bore the burden of the care and comfort of the animal;
Who paid for the expenses related to the animal’s upkeep;
Whether at any point the animal was gifted by the original owner to the other person;
What happened to the animal after the relationship between the litigants changed; and any
other indicia of ownership, or evidence of agreements, relevant to who has or should have
ownership of the animal.
What to do to strengthen your case?
Pet owners must keep proper documentation to better ensure they retain custody of their pets in the unfortunate case of a relationship breakdown. To do so involves keeping ownership papers, veterinary records, and bank statements that indicate who paid for pet food.
Parties living together or married can avoid disputes over the ownership or custody of a pet by
establishing their expectations, responsibilities, and rights related to the pet in case of separation. This can be achieved through a domestic contract, in which the couple can outline how potential issues will be handled if their relationship breaks down. By doing so, they can avoid leaving their pet's future up to the court's determination. This provides certainty and peace of mind for both parties.
No existing Custody plans?
After a breakup, if there's no existing plan for pet custody, it's important to put any future agreement in writing, whether that is a formal contract or just a text message.