Who gets the pet in a divorce? BC’s new pet custody laws make it easier to decide

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      On January 15, landmark amendments to BC’s family legislation became law. These new laws properly account for pets as family members, not just bare property, in pet custody disputes.

      Some background on pet custody 

      Calls to my Vancouver animal law firm about pet custody have escalated in the last few years.

      During the pandemic, families bought or adopted pets in record numbers—and then, post-pandemic, divorce rates and pet custody disputes both soared. There was a need to provide legislative guidance, and to bring more certainty to families around who gets to keep the pet when families split up. 

      When I teach animal law as an adjunct professor at UBC’s Peter Allard School of Law and at Capilano University, we have lively discussions about the impact of separation and divorce on furry family members. It is key for laws to account for animals as sentient, not just as property, and to factor in the human-pet bond. 

      Pets are not toasters 

      Companion animals are important members of the family, not inanimate property like toasters or couches. But before BC’s modernized new laws, pet custody cases centered around outdated “best ownership” principles (ie: whoever bought or adopted the pet would get to keep the pet, regardless of who actually cared for the pet). 

      New BC family laws factor in the whole family, including the pet

      Spouses fighting over who gets to keep the pet when the human relationship ends is not new, but prior to the changes to BC laws, pet custody cases were riddled with difficulties.

      “Pets are an important part of the family and allow a child’s relationship with a pet to be considered and respected,” BC Premier David Eby states in a press release about the new laws.

      Niki Sharma, Attorney General, notes: “We are committed to making family law work better for families.” 

      Factors courts must review in deciding who gets the pet 

      BC’s legislation is the first of its kind in Canada for factoring in all-important relational and contextual factors between pets and their human families. New laws look at the whole family, both two- and four-legged, in making a legal determination. We have moved toward a “best interest for all concerned” type of action. 

      At my animal law firm, we encourage couples to try to negotiate an agreement about their pets—but now, when couples cannot reach a consensus, the BC Provincial Court and Supreme Court can issue orders determining who gets the pet. Courts will analyze various factors in making a determination for who gets to keep the family pet, including:

      • Each spouse’s ability and willingness to care for the family pet
      • The relationship a child has with the family pet
      • The history, risk, or threat of family violence to an animal or human (unfortunately, violence between humans and animals comes up frequently in pet custody cases)

      Courts will not order joint custody or possession of family pets, but couples can decide to share custody of the family pet by entering into a private agreement. Joint custody may not work for all situations such as with fearful or territorial pets, or if there is family violence and spouses are forced to stay connected through sharing the pet. The BC Government is currently seeking public input on this issue. 

      BC’s unique pet custody laws should help make things easier for all family members, including the furry ones. Expect copy-cat (pun intended) legislation in other parts of Canada.  

      V. Victoria Shroff, KC, is widely credited as one of Canada's first animal-law lawyers and as BC’s pioneering animal lawyer. Her Vancouver animal law firm is Shroff & Associates.