Several years ago, Allan Markin, one of the owners of Calgary Flames, launched a $2-million lawsuit against his 22 year-old step-son, Zak Pashak, during the highly volatile breakdown of his marriage to Pashak’s mother. At the centre of the claim? Custody of Molly, the family’s Dalmatian. Markin demanded that Pashak either surrender Molly and pay $1 million in damages, or, keep her and pay $2 million.
As silly as the above scenario may seem, the matter of who will get custody of the family pet is often a huge issue for separating or divorcing spouses. For animal lovers, losing a family pet is as traumatic as losing a member of the family. Traditionally, courts have looked at pets as possessions, much like a TV or a car, and not like a living being. With this approach, sharing custody of the family dog between separated spouses would be about as likely as the spouses continuing to share a toaster on a week-on, week-off basis.
In deciding how to make custody arrangements for children, a court will determine what arrangement is in the child’s best interests. With pets, it has traditionally been the opposite- who gets the pet is decided based on which spouse will benefit most. Recently, some courts have begun to recognize the important role that pets play in the lives of their owners, and have started to treat pets more like children than chattels. This is primarily the case with dogs. Some courts have even made a determination of the best interest of the pet in deciding who should get custody, and have awarded shared custody, visitation and even alimony payments to the custodian. Another emerging trend is for pets to stay with the children as a calming influence to help in the separation transition.
Ultimately Markin won custody of Molly the Dalmatian and Pashak’s mother received a divorce judgment. For the rest of us who don’t have the time or money to launch a lawsuit over a pet, the best course of action is to attempt to come to an agreement with your spouse and put it in your separation agreement.
For more information on separation, divorce, and other family law matters, please visit MyOntarioDivorce.com.
Robert Berman B.C.L, LL.B
Founder & Family Lawyer