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B.C. plans family law changes to decide who gets the pets when couples split

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government introduced legislation Monday that looks to ensure family custody battles over animals can become more pet-friendly. The important role pets play in families will now be considered in amendments to B.C.
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B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma attends a swearing-in ceremony at Government House in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. The important role pets play in families who are separating is being addressed in proposed amendments to British Columbia's Family Law Act. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government introduced legislation Monday that looks to ensure family custody battles over animals can become more pet-friendly.

The important role pets play in families will now be considered in amendments to B.C.'s Family Law Act that clarify the law to provide more guidance for people and judges involved in animal custody disputes, Attorney General Niki Sharma said.

"What we were learning was this is an issue that can be very sensitive and challenging at a time when a family is breaking up. So, we needed to kind of step in to help not only to give some guidance but also give a provincial court judge the authority, if it's needed, to treat a pet not just like any other property but to actually consider what would be in the best interests of the pet and the family in that context," she said in an interview after introducing the legislation.

Custody disputes over pets have previously been settled as property assets, but the amendments, if passed, will now take into account the relationship of the pet to the family, Sharma said.

She said the pet custody changes are the first such laws to be introduced in Canada.

"We know that pets are really loved members of the family and the amendments make it easier for people to come up with their own agreements when it comes to how to divide time with the family pet, or if they can't, to get an order from a judge to say who gets custody of the family pet," she said.

The amendments would require the consideration of factors that include each person's ability and willingness to care for a pet, the relationship a child has with the animal and the risk of family violence or threat of cruelty, said Sharma.

Other amendments introduced Monday to the Family Law Act include modern-day changes for property and pension issues for couples and families going through a separation or divorce.

Sharma said the proposed amendments would make it easier to equitably divide property and improve the division of pensions.

She said the changes are based on a review over several years of the act to address both changes in society and developments in case law. 

The proposed amendments "better reflect the priorities and values of people today, including making sure the important role pets play in families is considered in the separation process," Sharma said in a statement.

V. Victoria Shroff, an animal law specialist at Shroff and Associates, said the changes reflect how pets are valued as unique family members by society, rather than inanimate property like furniture. 

"Having relevant factors to consider for these difficult decisions will bring more clarity and is a welcome change," she said in the statement. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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