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When fighting over a furry friend, consider what it's worth

Four-legged family members are often the subject of debate during separation proceedings, but — despite how much it may feel like it — pets are not considered children under Ontario law, says Ottawa family lawyer Timothy N. Sullivan.

“Pets are certainly a hot topic in separations, but they are really an issue of property and not one of custody,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Sullivan points to a recent headline-making case that dealt with how to split the time of a couple’s beagle mixed breed dog which they adopted together when it was three months old.

The separating couple did not have children but spent years in mediation trying to strike a time-sharing agreement for the dog, named Pupineya, reports the Globe and Mail.

In the end, they decided Pupineya would split time between the two, even though they now live on opposite coasts — one in Virginia, the other in British Columbia.

The article cites an American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers' survey that found 27 per cent of lawyers have seen an increase in pet-custody cases over the past five years with the most sought-after animal being dogs.

In Ontario, Sullivan, principal at SullivanLaw, says the issue of pet ownership certainly arises in separation cases and is often a source of tension.

“In law, a dog is no different than a table. It’s property. People often have trouble with that, and rightly so,” says Sullivan. “Dogs require feeding, caring, walking and grooming — a table doesn’t.”

But, putting pets in the same category as children isn’t appropriate either, he says.

“Unfortunately, pets often become an unfair emotional bargaining chip in cases of separation,” says Sullivan. “People are attached to their pets, and there’s really no ideal way of dealing with them in a separation. The law doesn’t treat a dog the same way it does a child.”

The issue is really one of ownership, says Sullivan, noting the first step for parties involved in such a dispute would be to look at whose name is on the dog's registration to determine who officially owns the animal.

“Just as an expensive piece of art has an owner, so too does a dog,” he says. “Before entering into a dispute over a pet, parties should consider the bargaining position they’re in, and whether they’re willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the pet.”

If children are involved, Sullivan says their best interests should be the first priority, as many times, they will want the pet to be in their primary residence.

And, for common-law couples, Sullivan advises they handle such a dispute in small claims court, because that’s where property division is often determined for common law couples with no more property issues than a shared pet.

“It would save them time and money, presumably, rather than going to the Superior Court,” he says.


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