New Illinois Divorce Law on Pets and Custody

New Illinois Divorce Law on Pets and Custody

By: M. Scott Gordon

When most couples file for divorce in Chicago, they have concerns about how the court will handle the matter of the family pet. Who will get the dog? Will the soon-to-be ex-spouses have to share custody of the family’s cat? These questions often lead to bitterness between the parties, and many divorces become very contentious as a result of a battle over the family dog or cat. As of January 1, 2018, a new law is in effect in Illinois concerning divorce and pets. According to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, the new law “treats pets more like children in custody cases.” Specifically, similar to the way that Illinois law now requires courts to allocate parental responsibilities (instead of awarding child custody), courts will also now be considering “the well-being of companion animals in allocating sole or joint ownership.”

If you are in the process of getting divorced in the Chicago area and have pets, what do you need to know about the new law?

Pets Defined as Marital Assets, Not Service Animals

It is important to note that pets defined as service animals are not subject to the law. The ADA National Network explains that a service animal is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” More specifically, any other animal that is not a dog, regardless of how it is trained, cannot be considered a service animal.

As such, if you have a cat or another animal (that is not a dog), then it is not a service animal. And if you do have a dog that classifies as a service animal, the new law will not apply when you get divorced. The law “applies only to pets that are marital assets, not service animals.” Until this new law took effect, pets were handled more like other marital property, such as motor vehicles or financial investments. While the report notes that many divorcing spouses eventually are able to come to an agreement about a family pet without the court making the final decision, there are cases where the court must decide.

Judges Now Have More Flexibility in Determining “Pet Custody”

Under the old law, judges typically had to make a decision about which of the spouses received the pet in the divorce settlement, giving the family dog or cat to one of the spouses in the course of property distribution. However, judges can now decide, under the revised Illinois law, that the parties can have “joint ownership” of the pet, and can even share time spent with the animal.

Illinois is one of only a small number of states that now has a pet custody law like this one. Alaska was the first state to enact such a law. Why is there a need for new kinds of pet custody laws? More couples see pets as integral parts of the family, especially in marriages without children. A survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Chicago indicated that about 30 percent of pet custody issues are settled outside of court, but courts end up deciding about 70 percent of pet custody matters. As such, having a specific law in place that gives judges flexibility in deciding these cases will likely be a good thing for all parties involved.

Contact a Divorce Attorney in Chicago

Do you have questions about divorce and pet custody? An experienced Chicago area divorce attorney can help with your case. Contact Gordon & Perlut, LLC to learn more about how the new law is likely to impact you.