Family Law Act BC: Navigating Companion Animal Custody

The Custody Battle Over a Companion Animal, Stella the Golden Retriever

In a notable case from the Supreme Court of British Columbia, the custody dispute over Stella, a beloved golden retriever (‘companion animal’), serves as a pivotal examination of recent modifications to the Family Law Act that address the treatment of companion animals. the Claimant advocated for exclusive custody following the breakup with the Respondent.

Stella was acquired on August 21, 2020. Although the purchase receipt was in the Respondent’s name, the Claimant had transferred funds covering half of Stella’s purchase price. Additional evidence was also adduced that supported the Claimant’s ongoing financial and emotional contributions towards Stella’s care.

The law has recently changed to better reflect the considerations of companion animals in legal disputes. Section 97(4.1) of the Family Law Act mandates that courts must consider factors such as the circumstances under which the animal was acquired, the extent of care provided by each claimant, the animal’s overall welfare, and other factors.

It was the Claimant’s evidence that she shared the costs of purchasing Stella, and despite not being listed on the original documentation due to a lack of awareness that she could be included, she has demonstrated a consistent financial commitment to Stella’s care. The Claimant provided extensive evidence of payments for Stella’s needs, underscoring her dedication to the dog’s well-being.

Despite the Claimant’s allegations of neglect and cruelty against the Respondent, the court did not find conclusive evidence to support these claims. The Claimant, a veterinarian, provided satisfactory explanations for his actions concerning Stella’s care.

The recent amendments to the Family Law Act essentially put the ownership of a companion animal, such as Stella, in the context of something that goes beyond ownership of a chattel.

Reflecting both parties’ affection for Stella and the significant legal costs incurred, the court decided against awarding exclusive custody to either party. Instead, it ordered a shared custody arrangement, recognizing both the Claimant and the Respondent’s substantial roles in Stella’s life and the importance of her welfare. The court emphasized that both the Claimant and the Respondent have shown a deep concern for Stella’s well-being, leading to a decision that custody should be shared on a week on week off basis.

During the proceedings, the Respondent sought to address decision-making authority and the financial responsibilities associated with Stella’s care. He expressed concerns about potential complications due to shared decision-making and queried the judge about managing ongoing costs, which he felt should be split, given the shared custody arrangement. The judge deferred these issues, suggesting they could be discussed outside of court, possibly indicating a role for mediation in resolving such disputes.

This aspect of the case underlines a significant consideration for parties in similar scenarios: the potential to use mediation to resolve ongoing concerns about decision-making and cost-sharing for companion animals. Mediation could provide a less adversarial, more collaborative approach to handling these delicate issues, aligning with the welfare-centric perspective of the amended Family Law Act.

In reviewing the details of the case, it’s noteworthy that the judge’s decision to implement a shared custody arrangement for Stella seems to overlook Section 97(4.2) of the Family Law Act. This section explicitly states that an order regarding a companion animal must not declare joint ownership of the animal between the spouses nor require the sharing of the animal’s possession. This discrepancy raises questions about the application of the law and its interpretation in court. The judge’s decision to allow shared custody appears to directly contradict section 97(4.2), highlighting a potential oversight or misapplication that could set a complex precedent for future cases involving the custody of companion animals under similar circumstances. Only time will tell. 

In summary, this case underscores the emotional depth and legal complexity of custody disputes involving pets, marking a significant step towards recognizing the rights and well-being of companion animals within the framework of family law.

This blog reviewed the case of: Bayat v Mavedati, 2024 BCSC 619 (CanLII)

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Domenic Maio

Domenic Maio

Barrister and Solicitor

Lawyer practicing in the areas of Family Law, Wills, and Corporate.

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