For many people, a dog, cat, or other pet is an important family member. In the past, the law did not include family pets as important matters to be addressed in the divorce process. Illinois law now considers family pets to be “companion animals’” and ownership and responsibility for the care of the family pet (or pets) may be assigned to one or both parties. It is important to know how a judge may decide ownership of and care for the family pet if you and your spouse cannot otherwise agree.
What does the law provide regarding family pets?
Illinois statute (750 ILCS 5/503(n)) provides several factors for the court to consider when addressing family pets. First, the court must find that a companion animal is a marital asset – meaning the pet was acquired during the marriage and did not belong to one or the other spouse prior to the marriage, was not acquired during the marriage by one spouse by gift, inheritance or otherwise, or is not otherwise excluded as a marital asset by agreement of the parties (i.e., a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement). Assuming that the companion animal is a marital asset, then the court will allocate sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for the family pet to one or both of the parties. In doing so, the court will consider the well-being of the family pet.
It is important to note that a service animal, as defined by Section 2.01c of the Humane Care for Animals Act, is not considered to be a “companion animal” and the service animal will stay with the party who requires the services animal.
What does the court consider in determining the well-being of family pets?
The law does not provide a specific list of factors that the court should consider when determining the well-being of a companion animal. Therefore, it is important to establish as many facts regarding the well-being of the animal for the court to consider, including:
- The pet’s relationship with each spouse and any child or children
- The history of care for the animal – Who feeds the animal? Who walks the pet? Who schedules and takes the pet to the vet?
- The ability of each party to provide appropriate care for the animal including food, shelter, grooming, and veterinary care
- The work schedule of each party
- Stability of routines and surroundings
- The home environment that will be established by each party
- Any history of neglect or mistreatment of the pet or any other animals
Courts also strongly consider the allocation of parental responsibilities and parenting time, particularly when the pet and children are closely bonded. In some instances, it may be in the children’s and the pet’s best interests to have the pet go with the children to each parent’s home during that parent’s parenting time. In addition, there are financial considerations, such as how to allocate the cost of routine and extraordinary veterinary care, pet health insurance, grooming, and boarding or day care for the animal.