In this paper detailed studies on modification of structural and magnetic properties of Ni-doped hafnium oxide (HfO2) thin films are reported. We used 200 keV Ni beam for doping of Ni. For homogeneous dispersion and activation of doped Ni ions, 120 MeV Ni swift heavy ions (SHI) irradiation was used. This unique combination of Ni doping by ion beam and dispersing and activating by Ni SHI irradiation of HfO2 films is reported for the first time. The origin of ferromagnetism in the Ni-doped HfO2 thin films is investigated. We demonstrate the cluster free nature of our film using cross-sectional high resolution transmission microscopy and magnetization versus temperature data. Rutherford backscattering data are used to establish that Ni ions are implanted in the HfO2 matrix at the predicted location. Dispersion of implanted Ni and lattice defects such as oxygen vacancies are attributed to be the main source of ferromagnetism. The observed magnetic moment is too large to be attributed to any secondary phase/magnetic clusters. © 2010 IOP Publishing Ltd.