In our blog article, Pets and Divorce – What You Need to Know, we outlined who takes possession of family pets during a divorce or separation in BC. We explained that under Canadian law, the courts treated family pets as personal property that can be owned, similar to a house or car.
Previously, the person who paid for the pet was considered the pet owner, and the court would allow the owner to retain the pet in the event of a relationship breakdown. However, if the pet was a family asset (i.e. acquired during cohabitation or marriage), the pet owner was required to pay their former spouse half of the value of the pet (i.e. what the pet could sell for in an open market). There was no legal basis for sharing custody of a pet.
In March 2023, Bill No. 17 was put forward to amend the Family Law Act (the “Act”). This Act governs the division of personal property between common law and married spouses in BC following a relationship breakdown.
The proposed amendments include fairly significant changes to the treatment of family pets upon separation in British Columbia. On May 11, 2023, the Family Law Amendment Act, 2023 (the “Amendment Act”), received royal assent. As a result, we can expect the amendments to be incorporated into the Act’s wording soon. In fact, some of the other non-pet-related amendments have already made their way into revised publications of the Act.
Here’s a review of the upcoming changes to the sections of the Act dealing with pets:
Pets Will Be Distinct From Property
First and foremost, pets will be distinguished from property. They are referred to in the Amendment Act as “companion animals”, which are animals kept primarily for companionship. Companion animals do not include guide dogs or service dogs which fall under other legislation, animals kept as part of a business, or animals kept for agricultural purposes.
This change is impactful, as it allows the court to consider other factors beyond ownership when determining who should keep the pet following a relationship breakdown. Whereas previously, the court’s decision about pets was determined solely by ownership, the amendments now require that the court consider the following factors under section 97 of the Act:
- (a) the circumstances in which the companion animal was acquired;
- (b) the extent to which each spouse cared for the companion animal;
- (c) any history of family violence;
- (d) the risk of family violence;
- (e) a spouse's cruelty, or threat of cruelty, toward an animal;
- (f) the relationship that a child has with the companion animal;
- (g) the willingness and ability of each spouse to care for the basic needs of the companion animal;
- (h) any other circumstances the court considers relevant.
Section 85 of the Act allows a spouse to exclude family property from division if, for example, it was gifted to the spouse by another family member or the spouse had the family property before the relationship.
Interestingly, the Amendment Act allows the court to consider the above list of factors and make an order with respect to ownership of the companion animal, even if the animal would be considered “excluded property.” This further signals the legislation’s intention to differentiate pets from property.
Practically speaking, this means that if someone owned a companion animal before the relationship, this fact alone will not allow them to retain possession of the companion animal after a separation.
Joint Ownership Of Pets After Separation
One element that will not change in the Act is the court’s inability to order joint ownership or shared possession of a companion animal. The court can only make orders giving exclusive ownership and/or possession to one spouse. However, section 92 of the Act will now recognize and enforce the spouses’ ability to enter into an agreement to:
- jointly own a companion animal;
- share possession of a companion animal; and
- give exclusive ownership or possession of a companion animal to one of the spouses.
In other words, you cannot expect the court to order joint ownership and possession of a pet, but you and your former spouse can enter into a legally binding agreement that does.