Several years ago, Illinois became only the second state to recognize pets as more than mere pieces of property to be divided in divorce. State lawmakers amended the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act to say that judges are required to consider what’s best for the pet if they’re called on to decide who gets to keep them or how custody will be shared. Specifically, the law says that “the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal.”
The court can also have the divorcing spouses draw up a written agreement regarding their pets. Under the law, that agreement “allocate[es] ownership of and responsibility for any companion animals” similar to the way that custody and parenting are decided over a child. (Note that this does not apply to any service animals that either spouse or a child may have.)
The loss of a pet in divorce can be devastating
For divorcing couples with children, pets often stay (or move between homes) with the children. However, for divorcing spouses who don’t have children or whose children are grown, losing custody of a pet can be devastating -– especially at such a difficult time.
Unfortunately, people who have no particular interest in the couple’s pets can sometimes seek custody of them as just another way to punish their spouse. By having a duty to consider a pet’s well-being, a judge can prevent this from happening. Even in states where there aren’t given such clear directives under the law, family court judges are increasingly considering what’s in pets’ best interests rather than viewing them as property.
Couples can make negotiate detailed provisions – even before they’re married
Of course, as with child custody, it’s always best when couples can work out how they will share custody of their pets on their own. Depending on their financial resources, they may also choose to work out a support agreement for their animals. Some couples even include their pets in their prenuptial agreement as well as provisions for any pets they acquire in the future.
If you have one or more companion animals in your life that you don’t want to lose as you and your spouse go your separate ways, it’s wise to have a family law attorney who understands your concerns help you negotiate and codify the best arrangement.