By Cheryl Goldhart
Founder and Principal of Goldhart Law and Goldhart Mediation & Arbitration.


Beyond their role as mere animals, pets are cherished members of the family, providing companionship, emotional support, and unconditional love. Their presence can ease stress, bring joy, and even improve health, making them indispensable to the lives they touch. Recognizing this profound connection provides impetus for legal systems to move beyond the traditional view of pets as property to acknowledge their special role within families.

British Columbia has been at the forefront of this legal evolution with its recent amendments to their provincial Family Law Act, specifically addressing the status and treatment of companion animals in the context of divorce and separation. This pioneering legal approach marks a significant shift in recognizing the emotional stakes involved in deciding the fate of pets during family breakdowns.

By redefining how companion animals are treated under the law, British Columbia sets a precedent that could inspire changes in jurisdictions far beyond its borders, including Ontario.

Overview of BC’s Approach

Under the updated Family Law Act, British Columbia introduces a nuanced definition of companion animals, distinguishing them from other forms of property. A companion animal is defined not just as any pet but as an animal kept primarily for companionship, excluding those kept for business, agricultural purposes, or as service animals. This distinction is crucial, as it acknowledges the unique role these animals play in the lives of families, beyond their economic value or functional utility.

Factors Considered by the Court

The Family Law Act (British Columbia) requires courts to consider a comprehensive set of factors before making a decision on the possession and ownership of a companion animal, ensuring that the animal’s welfare and the emotional bonds it shares with family members are taken into account. These factors include:

The Circumstances of Acquisition: How and when the animal became part of the family. This might involve looking at whether the animal was a gift, its purchase history, or if it was adopted, and which spouse was primarily responsible for its acquisition.

Care Provided by Each Spouse: The extent to which each spouse has been involved in the day-to-day care, feeding, grooming, and medical attention of the animal.

History of Family Violence: Consideration of any instances of family violence, recognizing the potential impact on the safety and well-being of the pet.

Risk of Family Violence: Evaluation of any future risk to the animal or family members, including the pet, based on past behavior.

Relationship with Children: The nature of the relationship between the pet and any children in the family, recognizing that pets often play a critical role in children’s lives and emotional development.

Ability to Meet the Pet’s Needs: Each spouse’s willingness and ability to provide for the pet’s basic needs, including food, shelter, veterinary care, and companionship.

Other Relevant Circumstances: Any other factor the court deems relevant to the case, ensuring flexibility to account for the unique circumstances of each family’s situation.

Limitations on Court Orders

A distinctive aspect of the legal framework in British Columbia is the limitation imposed on court orders regarding companion animals. Unlike property that can be divided or jointly owned, the court is restricted to awarding the ownership and possession of a companion animal to only one spouse. This prohibition against mandating joint ownership or shared possession is a recognition of the complex emotional dynamics involved and the practical challenges of enforcing shared custody arrangements for pets. This approach aims to provide a clear and enforceable resolution that considers the best interest of the animal, minimizing prolonged disputes and potential harm. However, parties can arrange to share the possession of the animal on consent.

This unique legal stance underscores the understanding that companion animals are not mere assets to be divided but sentient beings whose welfare and relationship with their human family members warrant careful and compassionate consideration. By establishing these guidelines, British Columbia not only advances the legal recognition of the emotional significance of pets but also provides a model that could inform future legal reforms in other jurisdictions.

Comparative Analysis with Ontario

The legal approach to handling companion animal disputes in family law varies significantly across Canadian provinces, with British Columbia (BC) pioneering specific legislation within its Family Law Act to address the status and treatment of pets during divorce or separation. Ontario, while progressive in many aspects of family law, does not currently have equivalent specific provisions in its family law statutes regarding companion animals.

BC’s Approach to Companion Animal Disputes

BC has explicitly recognized companion animals within its Family Law Act, providing a detailed framework for how pets are to be treated in the event of a separation or divorce. This includes:

A specific definition of companion animals.

A set of criteria for courts to consider when determining the ownership and possession of pets, focusing on the well-being of the animal and the relationships within the family.

Limitations on court orders that prevent joint ownership or shared possession, aiming to minimize disputes and ensure a clear outcome.

Ontario’s Current Legal Framework

In Ontario, the treatment of pets in family law disputes is less defined. Pets are generally considered property, and decisions about their ownership in the event of a separation or divorce are typically made under the same legal principles that apply to the division of property. While judges may consider the well-being of the pet and the emotional bonds between the pet and family members, there is no specific legal framework or set of criteria laid out in Ontario’s Family Law Act that parallels BC’s approach.

Gaps and Potential Benefits for Ontario

Lack of Specificity: Ontario’s lack of specific legal provisions for companion animals in family law disputes means that outcomes can be more unpredictable and may not always consider the pet’s well-being or the family’s emotional ties to the pet.

Emotional Consideration: BC’s approach acknowledges the emotional significance of pets and their role as more than property, a perspective that could benefit Ontario by ensuring that the emotional bonds between pets and family members are consistently considered in legal decisions.

Clear Guidelines: The specific criteria used in BC provide clear guidance to judges and legal practitioners, potentially reducing the time and resources spent on litigating pet custody. Adopting a similar framework in Ontario could streamline dispute resolution and provide more predictable outcomes.

Welfare of the Animal: By explicitly considering the welfare of the animal in its legal framework, BC ensures that the pet’s needs are a central concern in custody decisions. Incorporating animal welfare considerations into Ontario’s family law could lead to more humane outcomes for pets involved in separations and divorces.

Practical Implications for Ontario

Adopting a legal framework similar to BC’s for companion animal disputes in Ontario could have several practical benefits:

It would provide clarity and consistency in how these disputes are resolved, benefiting pets, their families, and the legal system.

It could encourage separating couples to consider the well-being of their pets more carefully during negotiations.

It might reduce the emotional and financial costs associated with litigating pet custody by providing clear criteria for decision-making.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, while Ontario’s family law system offers a robust framework for resolving disputes, the inclusion of specific provisions for the treatment of companion animals, similar to those found in BC’s Family Law Act, could enhance the legal process by ensuring the welfare of pets and acknowledging their importance to families. Adopting such measures could position Ontario as a leader in the humane and compassionate treatment of companion animals within the legal realm of family disputes.

Let’s continue to elevate the practice of family law in Ontario!

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Cheryl Goldhart is a mediator and arbitrator who can make a difference in resolving your family disputes.

  • Four Decades of Specialized Family Law Practice: Cheryl brings  a wealth of knowledge with nearly 40 years dedicated exclusively to family law.
  • Expertise in Counselling with a Masters Degree: Her Masters Degree in Counselling enables her to have a unique blend of empathy and insight.
  • Recognized Expertise in Family Law: The Law Society of Ontario has certified Cheryl as a Family Law Specialist.
  • Ontario Association for Family Mediation Accredited Mediator: Cheryl holds accreditation from the OAFM, underscoring her expertise as a mediator.
  • ADR Institute of Ontario Designated Professional: Cheryl’s designation by Ontario’s ADR Institute reflects her skill in arbitrating family law disputes.
  • Recipient of Prestigious Honours and Awards: Among Cheryl’s numerous recognitions is the prestigious Award for Excellence in Family Law from the Ontario Bar Association.

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as legal advice. Consult with a qualified family law attorney for advice regarding your specific situation. Goldhart Mediation & Arbitration is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information presented in this blog.


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