This dog is at the centre of a legal fight between a man’s grieving family and girlfriend

This dog is at the centre of a legal fight between a man’s grieving family and girlfriend

A legal tussle over a dog has cost both sides thousands in legal fees — and plenty of heartache — while highlighting how the law treats pets in estate battles. 

A Toronto-area court late last month ordered Aliesha Verma to turn over Rocco Junior, an American bull terrier, to her deceased partner’s sister by March 15. But this week Verma asked for a stay on that order while she appeals the decision.

“He’s my family, he’s my friend, he’s my child,” Verma told CBC Toronto.

She says the dog was a gift and that she relies on it for emotional and mental support.

Verma and Leonard Carvalho had been together for about six years when he died suddenly in November 2022, at age 60. He’d purchased the dog during a trip to Florida with Verma that February and, she claims in court documents, gave it to her.

But Leonard didn’t mention Verma in his will. Instead, he left everything to his two sisters, Arlete and Helga Carvalho, and a former spouse, court documents show.

A woman in a blazer looks into the camera.
Tanya Pagliaroli, the lawyer representing the estate’s executor, says the dog is a ‘beloved’ member of the family and was stolen by Verma. (Zoom)

Even so, Verma maintains the dog is hers. She also claims that she should be entitled to the dog since she was Leonard’s common-law spouse when he died.

His sisters argue that the dog was never gifted to Verma, and that, as Carvalho’s property at the time of his death, it should be considered part of his estate, of which Arlete is the executor. 

The case is focusing new attention on how the law views pets.

In most provinces, including Ontario, animals are viewed as property.

But earlier this year, British Columbia became the first province to redefine how pets are viewed by the courts, amending its Family Law Act so that they are now considered unique entities in separation and divorce cases. 

Instead of being treated as property, like a table or chair, courts there now decide an animal’s ownership based on a person’s ability and willingness to care for it, on any relationship between the pet and a child, and risks of animal cruelty.

A woman in a chequered jacket, standing outside in a park, smiles for the camera.
Verma’s lawyer Miranda Desa has appealed the ruling, saying her client would suffer ‘irreparable harm’ without the dog. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Victoria Shroff, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in the law as it relates to animals, says she believes B.C. is setting an example for other jurisdictions.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we got copycat legislation in other provinces,” she said. “Animals are no longer being treated as toasters.”

The day after Leonard died, Verma went to his Mississauga, Ont., house and brought Rocco home with her, court documents show.

But his sisters allege Verma stole the dog and launched a civil case that has so far cost over $200,000, according to court documents.

They also claimed their brother had only a “transactional relationship” with Verma, after having met on a “sugar daddy” website. 

WATCH | The fight over Rocco:

Meet Rocco, the dog at the centre of a legal custody battle

A Toronto woman has been fighting to keep two-year-old American Bull Terrier, Rocco Jr., after her boyfriend died more than a year ago. She maintains Rocco was a gift and is needed as a support animal, but an Ontario judge ruled last month the dog belongs to her former partner’s estate, which was left to his family. As CBC’s Sarah MacMillan explains, it’s highlighting how the law treats pets in estate battles.

‘No evidence’

In her Feb. 26 ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice Laura Stewart said there was “no evidence” the couple were common-law spouses nor that the dog had been left to Verma.

But Stewart also said the evidence does not back the sisters’ claim that the couple were in a transactional relationship.

She also found no proof that Rocco is “a legitimate support animal” and ruled the dog is the property of the estate. She gave Verma until March 15 to return Rocco Junior.

The sisters wouldn’t speak with CBC Toronto, but said in a statement issued by their lawyer, Tanya Pagliaroli, that they have been “worried sick about their beloved pet” and are “grateful the truth finally prevailed.”

Pagliaroli praised the decision. “They loved the dog and wanted him back,” she said of her clients.

Verma has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help cover her legal costs. It’s so far gathered just over $28,000 in pledges. She’s also launched a petition, hoping to change Ontario law to ensure that pets are treated with special consideration, not as property, in estate cases.

So far that petition has gathered about 28,000 names. She also collected about 200 signatures on a separate, hand-written petition, which she delivered to the office of MPP Christine Hogarth (Etobicoke–Lakeshore) last fall. Hogarth’s office said in a statement she’s looking into the issue.

On Tuesday, Verma’s lawyer, Miranda Desa, filed an appeal with the Ontario Court of Appeal, and applied for a stay of the handover order.

“It’s our position that [Verma] would suffer irreparable harm if she were required to hand Rocco Junior over while the lawsuit is continuing to be fought,” Desa said.

One thing both sides agree on? Desa and Pagliaroli say the case highlights the need for people to take into account their pets when writing wills, to avoid misunderstandings.

“The law needs to evolve as society’s interests change,” Desa said. “People don’t think of their pets as a table or a chair.”

A dog jumps playfully alongside a woman who is standing up.
Verma and Rocco play together last year. She has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help cover her legal costs and is collecting signatures with an eye to changing Ontario law. (Aliesha Verma)

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