June 19, 2024

Proposed changes to law would give judges more power to order who gets custody of a pet and who pays the bills

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Most British Columbians view their pets as a member of the family and, as a result, legal disputes over custody during a divorce are on the rise.

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So the BC government is proposing changes to family law, which lawyers specializing in animal law say will treat family pets as more than just property.

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“When we see animals being recognized as more than a toaster, I get really excited,” said V. Victoria Shroff, one of BC’s longest-serving animal-law lawyers. “It’s going towards that intrinsically worth of an animal.”

If passed, the amendments to the Family Law Act would provide legal guidance around how courts should determine ownership and possession of family pets, said Attorney General Niki Sharma.

The act will require judges and mediators to consider factors such as each person’s ability and willingness to care for the pet, a child’s relationship with the pet and whether there’s any risk of family violence or cruelty to the animal.

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Victoria Shroff at Vanier Park off-leash area beach in Vancouver on Monday.
Victoria Shroff at Vanier Park off-leash area beach in Vancouver on Monday. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNGs

Rebeka Breder, a Vancouver animal-law lawyer, said BC will be the first province in Canada to pass family-law legislation that considers the well-being of pets. Other provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, deal with pets in family law through regulation.

Breder, chair and founder of the Canadian Bar Association’s animal law section, has seen an increase in pet-custody disputes, perhaps because more couples who decide not to have children are opting for companion pets.

The amendments won’t give pets full-blown rights, Sharma said, but judges will have the power to consider a pet’s important place in the family.

Awarding custody of the family pet is purely based on who paid for the animal doesn’t take into account who cared for the dog or other more emotional factors, said Shroff, who has been practicing animal law for 23 years and who wrote the book Canadian Animal law.

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“If one of the spouses decides to be vindictive, they will weaponize the family pet,” said Shroff, who has acted in cases across the country that involve animals and the law, including family-law disputes and court cases around dangerous animals.

Shroff said the proposed changes are unlikely to eliminate acrimony, but will give judges more tools to make a decision.

Shroff and Breder have both helped couples negotiate “pet-nups” — the pet version of a pre-nuptial agreement — which lays out who gets the animal if the relationship breaks down.

Shroff said the new law would let a court set details on who the pet should live with, how much each party has to pay per month for pet food and who covers the vet bills.

The proposed changes, which will also include updated language on splitting pensions and other assets, are part of the government’s reforms to the BC family law.

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