Who Gets the Dog in a Divorce? A Prenuptial Agreement Can Solve the Age-Old Question.

Woodridge Divorce Lawyer

What happens to the dog when “pet parents” decide to divorce? Divorce is a messy and often contentious process, especially when couples don’t agree about dividing assets. When an animal has become an integral part of the family and is loved by both partners, deciding who gets a beloved pet after divorce can be a major problem. In addition, spouses may use a pet to get back at each other or as a bargaining tool, especially if one spouse has strong ties to the animal.

With so much at stake, more pet-owning couples are starting to  determine what happens to their pets in writing, through a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. These are legal documents where things like custody, care, deciding who will pay for pet insurance and veterinary bills, and the designation of a veterinarian to make medical decisions are set down before marital problems occur.

Divorce, dividing property, dealing with children and pets, and other family law issues are emotionally charged issues that are life-changing for everyone involved.  In order to avoid making costly mistakes, it makes sense to consult an experienced family law attorney to help you through this difficult time.

The seasoned and compassionate Illinois family law attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. always focus on our clients’ needs and feelings, and we work to clarify and resolve the issues they are facing in the most effective and efficient manner. We offer a free consultation to help you find the best solution for your individual situation, whether or not you have a pet.  Contact us online or call us today to set up your free consultation.

What is Illinois law regarding pets?

For years, Illinois treated pets like other pieces of property to be divided up between divorcing couples. Illinois is an “equitable distribution” state, which means the courts will divide marital property in an equitable, but not necessarily equal, fashion.  Pets owned by and brought into the marriage by one spouse are considered to be separate property belonging to that spouse, and the courts have no authority to change that.

Recently, the law changed so that animals are now treated more like children, and judges can allocate sole or joint ownership of the pet. The goal is to determine what is in the pet’s best interest and ensure that they are well taken care of.

According to the amended Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, Section 503(n):

If the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for a companion animal of the parties. In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal.

This amendment does not include service animals, and if the animal is brought into the marriage by one spouse and is not considered a marital asset, Section 503(n) also does not apply.  If the pet is considered a marital asset, the court will decide on ownership and responsibility of the animal and determine what arrangement will be in the pet’s best interest. “Responsibility” implies both financial responsibility and responsibility for the animal’s care.

Questions that arise

The new law raises some interesting questions which still have not been decided, including:

  • What if the court awards joint ownership and one of the spouses dies?
  • Will there be title documents to establish ownership of a pet?
  • If spouses have joint responsibility for a pet, what happens when they disagree, and who pays for an expensive medical procedure and decides whether or not to do it?
  • What if one party stayed at home and took care of the pet while the other was at work?
  • If one spouse was awarded the home, should the pet remain in the place where it lived?
  • If there are children, should the family pet have the same parenting schedule as the child?

Prenups and postnups

Couples about to marry can avoid making difficult decisions should they later divorce by laying out what to do in a prenuptial agreement. These agreements typically state how a couple will handle assets, debts, and other financial issues during their marriage and how these matters will be handled should the marriage end.  If a pet is adopted after the marriage begins, a similar agreement, called a postnuptial agreement, can be made.

Unmarried couples who are pet parents can still have an attorney draft an agreement that will address the issue of what happens to the animal should they separate.

While a premarital agreement may not affect the right of a child to support or bind courts in determining child custody, the agreements will be considered in the case of pets.

Contact Us For Help

Laws relating to division of property and pets can be difficult to interpret, and making a mistake could mean returning to court and costly battles that adversely affect everyone concerned. Fortunately, there is help available, and you may find comfort in knowing a lawyer is on your side. The seasoned Illinois family law attorneys at Wolfe & Stec handle all divorce cases 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. Then we develop a legal strategy designed to achieve those objectives and allow you to keep as many marital assets, including your pet, as possible.

There is no charge for the first consultation.  Contact us online or call us today to set up your free consultation.