August 26th is International Dog Day! For those of us with pets, this is an important day to celebrate our “fur babies.” Today is dedicated to recognizing the important role that pets play in families and in our lives. For those who are part of a separated or divorced couple, however, it is also a good time to reflect on how to deal with pet-related rights in the post-breakup phase.
Dividing the Dog:
We have previously talked about whether there is such a thing as “pet custody” in Canada. (The answer is: No). We’ve also talked about whether there are cases where separating and divorcing couples end up in court disputing the ownership of jointly-purchased pets (answer: Yes, many). The fact is, courts in Canada cannot make orders that award custody of your pet. Instead, the legal issue is about which of you owns the pet in the traditional legal sense of property ownership.
This is a preliminary determination that should be made before you can figure out how to move forward post-split. Ideally, you have reached an agreement that you are both joint owners. This can be done so amicably or else through a court order. Alternatively, only one of you is the legal owner, but the other gets “visitation” rights on a set schedule.
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For the purposes of discussion, this article assumes that one of these scenarios is the case.
Once you settle the issue of ownership, the next step is figuring out how to move forward. You both need to work out how and when you each get to enjoy your fur baby. Here are some tips.
Parenting Plans for Pets:
Let’s say you and your Ex have agreed that you share equal ownership. In other words, your pet will live with you half the time and your Ex the other half.
Just as with sharing time with a child, the best way to manage the day-to-day reality of this kind of arrangement is to put together a signed written agreement. It should be as detailed as possible, and cover all aspects of time sharing and of attending to your pet’s care. It should include:
- Your name, and the name of your Ex.
- The name of your pet.
- The exact schedule for sharing time, detailed to days, months or weeks (as the case may be).
- Who is responsible for the ordinary costs of care, including food, veterinary bills, kennelling, toys.
- The approved mode of transporting your pet from residence to residence, and any details around hand-off.
- The name of any approved dog-walkers, dog-sitters, or kennels that can be used when needed.
- The agreed outcome on any unusual scenarios. For example: What happens if one of you cannot take the pet during your allocated time (e.g. does the pet automatically go to the other person? Do they get an “option” to take the pet? Should you make a list of approved alternative caregivers?)
You should also cover what happens if your pet requires unexpected veterinary care. How are decisions made in these cases? How are costs apportioned, if you go ahead with the procedure? In the event of a stalemate, which of you gets the ultimate say?
There are many scenarios that are unique to you and your Ex, and are unique to your beloved pet. But as with any contractual situation that involves allocating the right and duties of two or more parties, negotiating the terms and putting them down in writing is always the best way to go.
What About Your Kid’s Pet?
The scenario above works well when you and your Ex have only your “fur baby” to think about. But the matter takes a new twist when you and your former partner also have children.
Let’s say you’ve managed to amicably sort out your co-parenting arrangement. You have agreed that your child will move between your respective homes on a 50-50 basis. What happens with the child’s cherished pet? Does the pet move back-and-forth too?
The answer to this is unique to each family and may be multi-layered. First, you need to consider who actually owns the pet in the legal sense. If the child is older and the pet has essentially been given as a “gift” from his or her parents, the child might be considered the owner for the purposes of determining how and when the pet moves from home to home.
That’s the easiest scenario, since it may simply involve the child and pet moving as a “unit” between homes, on the same schedule. The next step is merely to solidify this arrangement by adding pet-related terms into your child’s own parenting plan. Again, this should also address things like the shared cost of food, vet bills and related pet care items.
On the other hand, if the pet is more of a “family pet”, this requires more discussion. Just as you and your Ex will have sat down to figure out the day-to-day mechanics around caring for your child, you may have to have entirely separate discussions – reduced to writing – around the schedule for the pet moving independently between your homes, or for staying at one home permanently or for an extended period. In that last case, you may want to set out a “visitation” schedule for the other person, allowing for regular time with the pet in whatever arrangement works best for all.
For many pet-lovers, their dogs, cats and other animals are truly on the same level as their children. Even though Canadian law does not view pets that way, there are many ways to safeguard the right to spend time with a shared pet even after a breakup, separation or divorce.
If you have questions about setting up a Pet Parenting Plan agreement, or about including terms into a new or existing child-focused Parenting Plan, give contact our offices.