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Pet Custody After a Breakup


Published on May 21st, 2021

In addition to resolving issues related to custody of their children, financial issues, and the division of personal property, many divorcing couples must also negotiate their pets’ living arrangements. Divorcing or separating couples usually reach an agreement on custody of their dog, cat, fish, horse, or bird outside of court. However, when a couple fails to reach an agreement, Illinois law gives courts leeway in deciding the fate of their fur babies. Illinois is one of the few states in the country where a judge has the legal authority to consider the best interests of humans and animals alike.

Where the pet will live might be clear based on who is more interested and able to care for it, but a relatively new pet custody law does introduce more potential for litigation.

Some 85 million families own a pet. For many Americans, their companion animal is nothing short of a family member. A childless, two-income couple that shares responsibility for a pet can face unexpected difficulty reaching a compromise. When that happens, an Illinois divorce court might ultimately decide for the parties.

Illinois Judges Can Decide Pet Custody

Increasingly, courts are taking into consideration animals’ physical and emotional needs in a divorce. Previously, animals had the status of property but little protection. If you bought the pet or paid most of its bills, it was considered yours. Today, the court can prioritize the well-being of family pets in determining ownership, parenting time, custody, and the division of expenses related to the animal.

As pet custody cases become more commonplace, a judge will often consider:

  • Who was traditionally the primary caregiver;
  • Who will provide the most comfortable and appropriate living environment;
  • Who can better afford medical care, disease prevention, and veterinary treatment;
  • Who can better provide for the pet’s needs such as play and exercise; and
  • What are the work schedules of each party?
  • If there are minor children involved, the court will look at their parenting schedule as well.

Since there’s no way to divide an animal, a court can also order the prevailing party to pay a sum to their ex to maintain custody of it.

What Are the Main Pet Custody Issues?

Various issues can arise when more than one person claims ownership of a dog, cat, or other small animal. Either spouse can petition for sole or joint possession of the companion animal. It is easier than before for one side to argue that a dog is part of the marital estate even if it was purchased before the marriage. Following the divorce, you might end up with either full ownership of the pet or frequent “parenting” time.

The presence of children is one of the most influential elements involving pets in a divorce. Children get particularly attached to animals, and courts are instrumental in allowing that relationship to continue. If a case goes to court, the judge will often award the pet to the primary caretaker of the children so that children and pets are kept in the same household. If kids divide their time between homes, the pet might end up commuting back and forth with them.

In some cases, abuse or neglect of an animal may also be an issue. A judge can award temporary custody of a pet to one spouse if domestic abuse is a factor in the divorce.

Pet Custody Agreements

If you go the mediation route in your case, a neutral third party can help you negotiate where your pet lives and whether you see him/her on holidays. The details of that arrangement will be incorporated into a written agreement that can be as specific or general as the couple would like it to be. Will both parties split the cost of doggie daycare and trips to the vet? Are friends allowed to watch the animals? Who pays for the monthly medicine? The idea behind mediation is to plan for and head off disagreements before they happen.

A written agreement could already exist, simplifying things for the divorcing couple. Some people create a pet custody agreement when they first buy or adopt an animal together. It can include details about pet care responsibilities and establish who is interested in ownership. While the agreement might not resolve all of your post-marriage pet concerns, having an agreement in place is one way to avoid a dispute if the relationship doesn’t work out. It also helps reduce the stress of making pet-related decisions as you’re hammering out the other details of your divorce.

Davis Friedman can devise creative solutions to ensure both parties and the minor children play a vital role in the pet’s life. If pet custody is an issue that you are currently experiencing, please contact us to learn about our unique and creative strategies to approach this matter.

Have questions? Contact us about working together.

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