Beginning January 1, 2018, Illinois Judges have the authority to consider the well-being of pets in a divorce action. In the past, pets and companion animals, unlike service animals, were treated as property in a divorce (like furniture for instance), and rules for dividing property were applied to pets. Pet owners, however, often view their furry friends as part of the family.
The new law treats pets more like part of the family. Judges may consider a number of factors in determining which party should have the family pet(s):
- When was the animal acquired – before or during the marriage? Was the pet a gift?
- If the pet was a gift, was it a gift to a child or parent? Does the pet go with the child when the child goes from one parent to the other?
- Who does the day-to-day care or ‘dirty work’ of caring for the pet?
- Who bears the financial burden of veterinary expenses?
- Who pays for the food, bedding, toys, and entertainment?
- Who is responsible for the expense of daycare/boarding if needed?
When a divorce involves children as well as pets, courts are now instructed to consider whether separation issues may be implicated, both for the children and for the animals. While the rights of pets should never take priority over children, courts now have the ability to consider the well-being of the pets in the divorce process along with the well-being of the children.
The new law recognizes that pets can have an important impact on the well-being of children. The transition from a two-parent household to two one-parent households can be very difficult for a child. The presence of the family pet during this transitional time can help a child cope with the changes. Pets can provide some stability in a very unstable time.
Courts are not limited to considering what is in the best interests of the children when it comes to pets. Courts may consider the well-being of the pets, themselves. A judge may consider the health and age of a pet and whether sharing custody might put undue stress on the animal. While some pets tolerate a visit to the vet, or a road trip during the holidays, others are stressed to the point of physical reactions.
Of course, a court would also need to consider how the financial burdens of caring for a pet should be allocated. Who wants the pet(s)? Who is willing to take on the financial responsibilities? Should those responsibilities by shared?
As of January 1, 2018, pets are no longer an afterthought to be considered with the property that is being divided in the divorce. Pets now have a front seat in the divorce process with special attention being focused on doing the right thing for the family pets in a divorce. Pets are now treated as members of the family in Illinois divorce law.