Is there pet custody in Illinois divorce law?

On behalf of Stange Law Firm, PC posted in Child Custody on Monday, May 2, 2016.

For parents getting divorced, often the most important and difficult thing to decide is what to do about the children. Sharing child custody means not getting to see your kids part of the time, but giving sole custody to one parent, with visitation rights to the other, can put a large burden on the custodial parent, and severely restrict the relationship the other parent has with his or her kids.

Then there are pets. For many couples, especially childless ones, the family dog, cat or other animal is family. Anyone who has ever had a beloved pet knows the love and attachment they feel toward their furry (or feathered, or scaly) companion. So it might be natural to assume that Illinois family law provides for “pet custody” arrangements after divorce.

But it does not. Traditional family law in all 50 states considers pets to be “chattel,” a legal word for physical property. In other words, from a family law perspective your golden retriever is no different than your steak knives or the lamps in your living room.

Thus, if you want to keep your pet, you either have to work it out with your ex as part of a settlement, or leave it to the judge to decide. Some exes figure out informal “custody” arrangements where each get the animal part of the time, but these generally will not be legally enforceable if one of the “parents” ever changes his or her mind.

This will likely seem heartless to animal lovers out there, and the law may be, very slowly, moving toward treating pets differently than furniture. As Bloomberg News reports, in 2013 a New York divorce case involved a dispute over the couple’s miniature dachshund. The judge in that case ruled that the dog “is decidedly more than a piece of property.”

That judge declined to order a joint custody arrangement. But maybe someday, that will be an option in Illinois.

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