When a couple with children gets divorced, the pair must determine how to handle custody of the kids. Those with furry, four-legged children know that family members don't have to be human. Pets aren't simply a piece of property; they are a much-loved companion. Thanks to a recent law, Illinois has taken steps to recognize this concept and has put rules into place on how to handle custody of pets after a divorce. Rather than fighting like cats and dogs, couples can now fight for them.
If you are in the middle of a divorce in Illinois and are seeking information on how to handle custody of your beloved pet, the team of family law attorneys at Dolci & Weiland are here to help.
New Laws Allow for Pet Custody in Illinois
New enactments to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act have made changes to the way Illinois family courts view pets. Before adopting these changes, pets were treated as nothing more than a piece of property. Upon the dissolution of a marriage, the family dogs were divided in a similar manner to a couple's home furnishings or automobiles.
As of January 1, 2018, however, treatment of pets in a divorce has changed. Specifically, Section 503(n) of the Act provides:
"if the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership and responsibility for a companion animal of the parties. In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal." Thus, as of 2018, determining how to issue an award of pets for purposes of a divorce has become more humane, focusing more on the well-being of the pet."
Thus, rather than continuing to divide animals like property, courts are now able to issue orders granting custody of a pet to one or both individuals.
Determining Whether Pets are Marital Assets
When considering whether a pet can be subject to a custody arrangement between divorcing parties, it must first be determined that the pet is a marital asset, as Section 503(n) only applies to marital pets. The key to classifying a pet as a marital asset hinges on whether the pet was obtained during the marriage. If the pet was acquired by both parties during the marriage, it will be considered marital property; if one of the parties was in possession of the animal before the marriage, or if the pet was acquired as a gift or as part of an inheritance, the pet will be deemed to be non-marital property.
After being designated as a marital asset, pets would be divided between the two parties if there were multiple pets in the marriage; if there was only one pet, the animal would be awarded to one individual. Occasionally, the other spouse would have to reimburse the spouse who was awarded the animal for half of the value of the pet.
Following the 2018 amendment of the Act, the classification of a pet as joint property has more of an effect on the divorce. Specifically, if the pet is deemed to be a marital asset, parties to the divorce can fight for custody for the pet.
Before 2018, there was no such thing as "pet custody" in the state of Illinois; instead, one person was simply awarded sole possession of the animal. So-called "custody arrangements" were occasionally created between parties to a divorce but had no binding authority in the eyes of the court. Aside from these arrangements, the only way to determine ownership of an animal after a divorce was a prenuptial agreement.
With the enactment of the 2018 amendment to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, however, family courts are now permitted to award joint or sole custody of a pet--known to the courts as a "companion animal"--that was obtained during the marriage and is considered a marital asset. For purposes of determining whether to award joint or sole custody of an animal, a judge must determine what custody arrangement would be in the best interest of the animal.
Custody of a pet is generally awarded to the person who took responsibility for caring for the pet. For example, if a couple adopted a dog during their marriage, but the husband walked the dog every morning and was financially responsible for the dog's care, then the husband would likely be awarded sole custody of the pet after the dissolution of the marriage. For divorcing spouses who can't bear to give up complete control of a marital pet, or for those who spent equal time taking care of the pet, a family law judge can award joint custody of the pet to both parties. So long as the parties are able to be amicable toward each other, joint custody is often a fair arrangement or couples who shared responsibility and ownership of the pet relatively equally.
Service animals remain an exception to the new law regarding pet custody. Even if the pet was acquired during the marriage and both parties spent equal time caring for the pet, service animals are not subject to custody and will remain the sole property of the person whom the animal assists.
Facing a Divorce with Pets in the Picture? We Can Help
If you are in the midst of a divorce and are worried about your furry friends, the attorneys at Dolci & Weiland are standing by to put your mind at ease. We understand that pets aren't simply animals; they are beloved members of the family. Our legal team is dedicated to providing clients with competent legal representation tailored to their best interests. Don't try to handle your divorce alone; rest assured knowing that your case is being handled by a group of attorneys who care. To speak with a member of our team of attorneys about the specifics of your divorce, fill out an online contact form or call the location nearest to you today--for our DuPage office, call (630) 261-9098, or for our downtown Chicago location, call (312) 238-9008.