Responsible Pet Owner Month: Divorce and Pet “Custody”

Who gets the kids? The house? The car? And…. the dog?  The long important question of how to settle custody disputes over family pets during a split now has a concrete foundation.  The State of Illinois now allows pets to be considered for sole or joint ownership during divorce proceedings.  The new law, effective January 1, 2018, gives decision making power over dogs, cats, horses and other animals to judges who will determine the best fit for the animal’s home based upon previous care provided and the relationships between the owner and the pet.  

Illinois is an early adopter of pet ‘custody” laws but Alaska was the first state to bring about this important proclamation in 2017.  Many states are now showing interest in legislation.  The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported a 27 percent increase in pet custody cases from 2009-2014.  “I think we will see this law expanded upon in the future now that the court doesn’t just treat the family dog like a piece of furniture,” said Crystal Lake, Illinois attorney Karen Lavin.  Currently, Lavin and other family law attorneys are interpreting the new law and watching cases where it could be tested.  “Companion animals are covered by the law, but it doesn’t go into any detail on what a companion animal is.  It’s the general consensus among attorneys that it would certainly include dogs, cats and horses, but not birds or reptiles,”  said Lavin.

The effect of divorce on the life of humans always comes first, but the effect of divorce on family pets has historically been without legal consideration or even an ethical framework.  Many things can happen to an animal and its health when a home is broken and people move on with their lives.  This can range from abandonment, poor care, lack of funds for care, moving to smaller homes or apartments and troublesome health problems and behaviors.  Change and stress in the home are important factors in the overall wellness of any sentient being including animals.

In the animal hospital, we have seen pet custody handled very well when a cooperative agreement is reached between both parties during a divorce or separation.  Take for instance the case of a cherished dog named “Kooper” who was beloved by his divorcing owners.  For years, this couple provided the best holistic care for Kooper until the end of his life.  They had both moved on to new lives but Kooper was always loved and provided for until the end.  That genuine commitment and responsibility is the absolute ideal in divorcing families and it’s ideal for animals for numerous reasons.  

Recently, we experienced another example of thoughtful, responsible pet ownership that defines the gold standard of pet custody.  An engaged couple recently visited the office with their new puppy for care. The couple was not yet married but planned for their pet in their prenuptial agreement and addressed their plans and concerns with the staff and veterinarian about their wishes for their pet in the event of a dispute or emergency. It was very insightful and showed deep care and concern for their puppy.  

Receiving a judge’s determination in your favor in a divorce is not perfectly simple.  In fact, Lavin says the judge first takes into account the well being of the pet. “The phrasing ‘well being’ is very similar to ‘best interests’ which is what the court focuses on with children in custody disputes,” said Lavin.  Expect also to provide proof that you are the primary caretaker and are financially responsible enough to care for the pet.  

This legal structure provides an important framework based on responsible pet ownership and keeps important furry family members from falling through the cracks in a family separation.  With the support of legislation, courts, attorneys and owners, Illinois pets will have better care and consideration in the years to come.  Call this 2018 law a win-win for pets and families alike.

Dr. Jim Carlson with Cristen Carlson

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