Ask a Lawyer: What happens to pets during divorce proceedings?

Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyers Sheila Raffray and Chuck Easton discuss what happens to pets in a divorce proceeding on this month's segment of Ask a Lawyer

Legal Aid AB
April 02, 2024

Division of property is just one step of many for Alberta families in a divorce proceeding. You can split the couch, the car and the house, but what about the beloved pets? Does “pet custody” exist in the eyes of the court?

This month on Ask a Lawyer: Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyers Sheila Raffray and Chuck Easton (with special pet guest Muffin), appeared on Global News to discuss what happens to pets in a divorce proceeding, and how to approach difficult discussions about our furry companions in the midst of a family breakdown.

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Transcript of the Program:

Vinesh Pratap: Welcome back everyone. Dog is a man’s best friend. Under Alberta law, however, this isn’t necessarily the case when you’re dealing with a divorce proceeding or separation. Here to talk about family pet ownership after a relationship breaks down, are Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyers Chuck Easton and Sheila Raffray, and Muffin the dog. Thank you all three for being here this morning.

Sheila Raffray: Thank you.

Pratap: This is a very interesting topic of conversation this morning. So, pets of course are seen as members of the family. But how are pets classified in a legal situation when we’re talking about divorce or separation?

Chuck Easton: Again…this little girl Muffin is part of our family. But if we had to go to court, the court would view her as property. She’d be similar to your car or your house, and that’s how the court would make a decision regarding her.

Pratap: OK, wow, very, very interesting. So I hesitate to ask this next question, especially with Muffin judging me, but if they are considered property, how do you place a dollar value on the pets?

Raffray: Perhaps I’ll let Chuck answer this.

Easton: She’s priceless to me. So, how do I place a value on her? If you’re going to do that, you would have to research and figure out basically what her resale value is, just like the resale value of your used couch. And then, if you cannot come to a decision, the court will [decide].

Pratap: So, the judge plays a very important role in this. So, let’s talk about that. What if both sides can’t reach an agreement here? How does the process play out?

Raffray: Ultimately, if people cannot make a decision about who owns a pet or piece of property through separation, then it can fall to a judge to make that decision, and this is an evolving area of law across the country. In some cases, the court is going to look at who has a better claim to ownership, right? Who did the research on adopting Muffin, or who paid for Muffin or made sure Muffin gets to the vet appointments?

Alternatively, the court might say you both have equal ownership. You both engaged in the research together. In which case, you both have entitlement. And Chuck, if you want to have a Muffin, you would have to pay out your share for the Muffin. The worst-case scenario would be the court saying like any piece of property, that if you cannot agree, Muffin is going to have to be sold and you are going to share the proceeds.

Pratap: How about a situation, for lack of a better term, can there be “joint custody” of a pet?

Easton: In that regard, there can’t be [joint custody]. The court cannot make a custody order regarding pets. But one of the things that can be done, and this has happened in one of my files where the parents came to a very quick decision on the children, doing what’s best for the children. They couldn’t make a decision on the dog, so what they finally agreed was the dog was more bonded to the kids than to either of them, so they decided that the dog would go where the kids were, when the kids were with mom, the dog was with mom, when the kids were with dad, the dog was with dad.

Pratap: Let’s expand upon that. So, does a judge take that into consideration as well if there are children that part of the separation and divorce proceedings?

Raffray: I mean ultimately, the courts are making a decision about children. They are guided by making a decision that is in the best interests of the children. And so, while the court couldn’t require that the parents share custody of the pet, they could strongly encourage them to consider what is in the best interest of the children and their relationship with the pet.

Pratap: OK, I guess finally, based on your experience and expertise, what is your advice to the adults in the room to avoid complications when it comes to pets at the court level?

Raffray: Ultimately, our recommendation is to always try to resolve matters between yourselves or with the support of a professional without having to go to court and having a judge make that decision for you. If you don’t want Muffin to be treated like this table, our recommendation is to not bring the issue of Muffin to the court. There are ways to do that through mediation and negotiation.

Pratap: OK some very helpful and important advice. Sheila, Chuck and Muffin, thank you for being here it is greatly appreciated.

Easton and Raffray: Thank you.

Pratap: Legal Aid Alberta lawyers specialize in family law, child welfare, domestic violence immigration and youth and adult criminal defence. If you have a question for a lawyer, send it to [email protected].

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