How are pets handled in a divorce?

Americans love their pets, many viewing them as part of their family. So when the family breaks up due to divorce, the issue of who gets custody of the pet may become a major problem.

According to a 2015 survey from the American Pet Products Association, about two-thirds of American households, have pets. With approximately half of all marriages in the United States ending in divorce, there are a lot of people who wind up fighting over their animals.

The experienced and compassionate Illinois family law attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd., always focus on our clients’ needs and feelings, and we work to resolve the issues they are facing in the most effective and efficient manner.  Whether you need advice about your pets or any other divorce issue, we offer free consultations and will help you find the best solution for your individual situation. With office locations in Woodridge and Chicago, we represent clients throughout the entire Chicagoland area. Call our DuPage County family law attorneys today at 630-305-0222 to schedule your free initial consultation.

How is Pet Custody Determined in Illinois?

Harsh as it may seem for people who love their pets and regard them almost as children, Illinois courts generally treat a pet as personal property, the same as a television, an heirloom, or an antique.  When the courts divide a divorcing couple’s property, the property is categorized as either marital (belonging to both spouses) or non-marital (belonging to one spouse).  Marital property is divided equitably, and non-marital property goes to whichever spouse it belongs to.

If you owned the pet before getting married, acquired the pet by gift or inheritance, or if your spouse agrees that the pet is yours, the pet is non-marital property and you will be awarded the pet in the divorce.  However, if the pet belongs to both of you and is considered marital property, it can be problematic. If you and your divorcing spouse cannot agree, the court will have to decide who will own the pet through testimony and fact-finding.

What About Visitation?

You love your pet, but your spouse is granted ownership.  Can you get visitation?  Probably not — unless your ex agrees.

In the case In re Marriage of Enders and Baker, 2015 IL App (1st) 142435, an Illinois Appellate Court ruled that courts have no authority to require that a soon-to-be ex-spouse have “visitation” rights with a pet.  The Illinois court looked at a 2013 New York decision which denied dog visitation.  In Travis v. Murray, 977 N.Y.S.2d 621, the New York court stated a “best interests of the dogs” standard would be “unworkable and unwarranted” and visitation would “only serve as an invitation for endless post-divorce litigation.” Accordingly, the Illinois court concluded that Illinois law has no provision for pet visitation after a divorce.

The Illinois court then used the Animal Control Act, which defines an owner as “any person having a right of property in an animal, or who keeps or harbors an animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian.” The wife was considered the “owner” of the dogs because they remained with her when the husband moved out, and the husband was denied visitation.

What Can You Do?

1) Come to an Agreement

It is always best to come to an agreement with your spouse. Consider the needs of the animal — if one of you is in a tiny apartment and the other gets the house with the yard, where would the animal have a better life?  If there are children involved, how would they feel about your arrangement? Do you really want to shuttle the animal back and forth between two residences? And think through what is involved in time, money and care with owning the pet while single. If you do decide to share custody or have visitation, be aware that this means continuing contact with your ex.

2) Mediation

If you cannot agree on your own, consider using a mediator, especially if you are using one to settle other issues. However, be aware that agreements reached through mediation can be detailed, with requirements such as having to use groomers or dog walkers to transfer pets between homes.

3) Plan ahead

To make sure the court awards you your beloved pet, plan ahead.  Purchase the pet yourself, preferably before getting married.  Have a premarital agreement or postnuptial agreement during your marriage that states who will own the pet in case of divorce. Take actions that show you are the pet’s primary caregiver — take the pet to the veterinarian, and pay for the pet’s food, vaccinations and grooming supplies, and keep receipts.

4) Consider the Best Interests of the Pet

You and your spouse may both love your pet, but which one of you can take better care of it?  Does one of you travel for business?  Does one of you spend more time at home?  Does the pet feel more attached to you or your spouse?  Which home is more pet-friendly?  Are there children involved and where do they spend most time?

Contact Us For Help

Sometimes, people use pet issues to get even with an ex-spouse, for manipulation, or as a tactic to obtain something else they want in the divorce. The seasoned Illinois divorce attorneys at Wolfe & Stec can help.  We understand what you are going through and handle all Illinois family law cases, including pet custody, with sensitivity, respect, and discretion.

At Wolfe & Stec, Ltd., we made our reputation one client at a time, and we put every ounce of our ability into every case.  There are no ready-made solutions in divorce and family law – every case needs to be considered on its own merit. Our lawyers take the time to delve deeply into the problem and to understand your goals and concerns. We know the courts and the system and can develop a legal strategy designed to achieve those objectives.

There is no charge for the first consultation, and we are happy to schedule appointments at either of our offices, located in Woodridge and Chicago. Delaying can only complicate your situation and make matters worse.  Call us today for your free consultation at 630-305-0222 or contact our team online.

Attorney Natalie Stec

Natalie M. Stec, born and raised in Illinois, and earned her Bachelor of Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her practice has been concentrated in significant pre and post decree marital and family law cases; including custody, visitation, support, and paternity matters. She has important criminal defense experience in both misdemeanor and felony cases. She is a very dedicated and passionate litigator. [ Attorney Bio ]