29th May 2024

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Who keeps the family pet in a breakup? Legal clinic helps exes navigate ‘underdeveloped’ law

4 min read

A legal clinic run by Toronto Metropolitan University law students wants to provide couples going through pet-related disputes with options, especially after the spike in pet ownership over the pandemic.

Rebecca Jager, a second-year law student at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law, started Pro Bone-O pet dispute clinic to help provide valuable experience for students, and fill a gap among Ontario pet owners going through a split.

“I saw the clinic as an opportunity for students, but also knew that this type of resource was needed,” she tells Yahoo Canada. “I know the pandemic created this huge rise in pet purchases. And we also know that many relationships broke down.”

According to a 2022 survey by the Canadian Animal Health Institute, pet ownership across Canada spiked throughout the pandemic, with 60 per cent of households reporting ownership of at least one cat or dog.

Between 2020 and 2022, the dog and cat populations in the country increased from 7.7 million to 7.9 million for dogs, and from 8.1 million to 8.5 million for cats.

“So we got this perfect storm of pet disputes going up, relationships breaking down and then these nasty disputes in the courts,” Jager says.

The free monthly clinic, which is run online, is intended to help pet owners by pointing them to other paths forward, through referral services and mediators. While students can’t provide legal advice, a lawyer is present during the clinic to supervise them.

The pandemic created this huge rise in pet purchases. And we also know that many relationships broke down.

‘Pets are part of the family, they’re sentient beings’

In January, B.C. amended its Family Law Act to consider pets as “companion animals,” rather than property. That means if an agreement can’t be reached between a couple over their pet, a spouse can ask the court to decide on who gets to keep it. Factors considered by the court include how the pet was acquired, who primarily cared for it, whether there’s a risk or history of family violence, and whether a child has bonded with the animal.

In Ontario, the law sees pets in a legal dispute as property and award ownership to the person who purchased the animal: Or, as Jager describes it, “You bought it, you got it.”

She says this can be challenging for pet owners, since there’s such a strong emotional attachment to the animals, and it can play out in ugly ways in the courts.

“Pets are part of the family, they’re sentient beings,” Jager says. “They’re not a chair or an object. Whenever there’s anything emotionally intense, that’s when you start spending big bucks on lawyers and stuff.”

Jager hopes the clinic will help provide alternative solutions for couples who are breaking up and unsure what to do with their pet.

“The court system and family law is so clogged,” she says. “Not only is it expensive, but the courts want to focus on cases that have to do with children. So there’s not really a place for pets. We’re hoping the clinic will fill that gap and we can build it up into something that provides more services.”

Young man and woman sitting in backyard holding a cat and a dog

Young man and woman sitting in backyard holding a cat and a dog

Lawyer: What to consider before co-owning a pet

Meagan D’Mello is a Brampton-based lawyer and one of three lawyers supervising the clinic. She says if people do have a pet dispute, they’re going to want to employ the services of a mediator, who can help couples reach a final decision, or an arbitrator, who analyzes the details of a case and reaches a verdict.

For those looking to co-own a pet, D’Mello urges people to consider several things, like drafting a cohabitation agreement. This requires that each party obtain a lawyer to set intentions from the start which D’Mello admits can be taboo. The agreement will sort out the parenting schedule, how you’re going to split expenses and what happens if one person relocates.

“It’s always best to protect yourself when there’s a pet involved, and having a cohabitation agreement is very helpful in the event of the breakdown of a relationship because it streamlines what’s going to happen,” she says. “Because the law is very undeveloped in Ontario in that area, it could go either way. And that’s why it’s best to have an agreement in place.”

For couples getting a pet after they’ve already been dating, D’Mello recommends setting up an ownership agreement to ensure that each party is committed to the responsibility.

“Come to an agreement with your partner for if there’s a breakup, whether one person will keep it or whether it will be shared along with expenses,” she says. “Pets live multiple years and require care and they will feel a shift if there’s a breakup.”

D’Mello also advises not to get a pet in the early stages of a relationship or if there’s intimate partner violence, as a pet can be “used as a pawn.”

For a person who is bringing a pet into a relationship, D’Mello recommends they keep the pet ownership in their name when registering with the city. She also advises to keep expenses separate and ensure that all expenses come from that person’s account rather than joint funds.

“For the most part, it should be one person who takes care of the animal for general care,” she says. “Don’t allow the partner to pay for expenses. Little things here and there are fine but as much as you can, keep major expenses to one side.”

D’Mello admits that every relationship is unique but if you’re concerned, call a family law lawyer and know your rights.

“Every situation is nuanced and different but a cohabitation agreement is the best way to go,” she says.

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