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Attorneys Discuss Pet Custody and Divorce in Chicago

Fighting Over Cats and Dogs in Chicago? Call Us

Since the 1960s, cat and dog ownership has quadrupled in the United States. Nearly 52% of Illinois households have pets. Knowing this, it's not surprising that pet custody cases are also on the rise. Disagreements over who will keep a beloved pet have been known to happen between married couples, unmarried couples, and even roommates.

If you and a partner are splitting up or getting a divorce, it's important to contact an experienced family law attorney. The Chicago divorce law firm of Nottage and Ward, LLP, has been successfully representing clients facing complex legal issues for over 30 years. We are sensitive and supportive of your legal and emotional needs. Call us today at (312) 332-2915. Our firm serves Cook, Lake, McHenry, and DuPage counties.

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What Does Illinois Law Say About Pet Custody?

Most people naturally bond with animals, and this attachment increases over time. This can be a problem if a couple decides to end their relationship. While couples may think of pets as their children, that's not how the law saw pets. In the past, under Illinois law, animals were treated as property when dividing up assets in a divorce, just like a car or a television set.

However, a new law went into effect on January 1, 2018, that allows a judge to take the pet’s well-being into consideration when allocating joint or sole custody of a pet. This new legislation was sponsored by Linda Holmes, a state senator from the western suburb of Aurora and a professed animal lover. “It sort of starts treating your animal more like children,” she said. “If you’re going before a judge, they’re allowed to take the best interest of the animal into consideration.” The law only applies to companion animals (pets) that are marital assets, not service animals.

The Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986 (750 ILCS 60/214) also allows a judge to award temporary legal custody of an animal to one partner if it can be proven that the domestic abuse towards the partner is also a danger to the animal. This rule doesn't apply in the case of a marriage or separation.

As attorneys, we recommended including pet custody issues when creating a prenuptial agreement. If you're purchasing or adopting a pet as a couple, you may want to have legal documentation of who will get custody if you break up. A skilled Chicago pet custody lawyer can draw up such agreements.

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FAQs About Illinois Pet Custody

Q: How is the new law different from the previous situation?

A: Prior to this new law, the courts treated pets no differently than other property. The most important factor in determining which spouse would get to keep a pet was whether the animal was acquired prior to the marriage or after the marriage. Prior pets would be considered non-marital property, while pets acquired after the marriage were a marital asset. In the former case, the spouse who acquired the pet prior to the marriage would keep the animal, no matter the circumstances. In the latter situation, if the divorcing couple was unable to decide who would keep the animal, the judge would award the pet to one party, no differently than any other piece of personal property.

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Q: Is it possible to have joint custody of an animal as part of a divorce settlement?

A: Yes, thanks to the new law, the court can issue a shared custody order if it’s in the best interests of the animal. This can also be useful for allocation of parental responsibilities. For instance, a judge might decide a dog will be shared on the same parenting time schedule that the children are on.

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Q: Are there any exceptions to the new law?

A: If the pet belonged to one spouse prior to the marriage, the new law does not have any effect. The animal would still be awarded to the original owner, regardless of what might be in the animal’s best interests.

The other exception to the new law applies to certified service animals. In these instances, the animal stays with the spouse it has been assigned to and the court has little say in the matter.

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Q: How does the court determine the well-being of a pet?

A: The law is new, and Illinois judges are determining what is in the best interests of a pet on a case-by-case basis. The decisions being made in court right now will go a long way to creating case law precedents for the future. In the meantime, skilled Chicago family law attorneys have the opportunity to make creative arguments to sway judges when it comes to the allocation of family pets.

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Q: Does a divorcing couple have to allow the court to decide on pet ownership?

A: No. In fact, couples are strongly encouraged to reach a decision as to what will be in the best interests of the animal themselves, without the involvement of the court. The court will only step in to make a decision if the couple cannot reach an agreement on their own. Unfortunately, because pets are often part of the family, it can be extremely difficult for two people to agree on a solution without some help. That’s where we come in.

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Handling Family Law Cases Involving Pet Custody in Illinois

Considering the emotional attachment people have to their pets, pet custody cases have been known to end up in court. The skilled litigators at Nottage and Ward, LLP, have been practicing since 1988 and have deep knowledge of Illinois law. We will guide you through all phases of your claim - pre-trial, negotiation, and settlement or litigation. Call our offices today at (312) 332-2915. We're here to help.

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