If you’re one of the 86.9 million Americans who share their home with a beloved pet, you understand how essential they are to your happiness and well-being

When faced with a difficult life transition like separation or divorce, it’s crucial to consider what will happen to your cherished furry (or scaly) family member. Pet custody battles are becoming increasingly common across the country, and Public Act 100-0422, effective Jan. 1, 2018, amended the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act to empower courts to create joint responsibility agreements (similar to shared parental responsibility of children) in cases where stewardship of a pet is contested.

Understanding the legal landscape regarding your pet and careful planning for their future can make the process less painful for your human and nonhuman loved ones. Let’s take a closer look into the factors that courts consider when determining pet custody and provide guidance on navigating this emotional and complicated process.

An Evolving Mindset

Pet ownership has increased dramatically over the past three decades, with millions of homes adopting dogs, cats, and other companion animals during the pandemic

Even though they play an enormous role in our personal lives, courts typically consider pets as personal property subject to the state’s equitable distribution of assets laws. However, unlike cars, houses, and furniture, it’s impossible to put a price on the love and comfort offered by your cat, dog, iguana, horse, or other animal companion.

Thankfully, family court judges and state legislatures are beginning to change how they view the significance of pets vs. property, according to attorney and animal law pioneer Barbara J. Gislason, author of Pet Law and Custody: Establishing a Worthy and Equitable Jurisprudence for the Evolving Family

Three states — Alaska, Illinois, and California — are paving the way for a new approach to ensuring the welfare and best interests of the pet are taken into consideration during divorce proceedings, including agreements where care will be shared between both spouses

Factors to Consider

When adjudicating pet custody disputes, Illinois courts may consider various factors to determine what arrangement will most fit the needs of the pet. These factors may include:

  • Primary Caregiver: The court may assess which party provided the majority of the pet’s care, including feeding, grooming, and veterinary care. The primary caregiver’s ability to meet the pet’s needs and maintain a stable environment may weigh heavily in determining custody. If one spouse purchased or adopted the pet before the marriage, they may be more likely to receive custody in the divorce.
  • Living Situation: Judges may evaluate each spouse’s living situation to determine if it can accommodate the pet’s needs. Factors such as housing stability, outdoor space, and proximity to parks or veterinary services may influence custody decisions.
  • Relationship with the Pet: The strength of the bond between each party and the pet may also be considered. Evidence demonstrating the quality of interactions, such as who engages in daily activities or attends veterinary appointments, could sway the court’s decision.
  • Child-Pet Dynamics: If children are involved, judges may consider the pet’s relationship with them and the potential impact of separation on their well-being. Maintaining continuity and stability in that relationship may be prioritized in custody arrangements.
  • Behavior and Temperament: The pet’s behavior and temperament, including any special needs or issues, may factor into custody decisions. The court may assess which party is better equipped to address these needs and provide the appropriate care.

Attorneys may present a proposed co-parenting agreement, especially during mediation or in a collaborative divorce, that outlines visitation schedules, financial responsibilities, and decision-making authority. This enables both parties to spend quality time with their beloved pet.  

Furry Friends and Looking Forward

Going through a divorce can be a painful and unpleasant experience — and it can become infinitely worse if you’re threatened with the loss of a member of your family. Pets have a huge impact on our lives and grief over losing them can last a lifetime.

It’s best to keep detailed records of your involvement in the pet’s care, including feeding schedules, veterinary appointments, and training efforts. This documentation can serve as evidence of your role as the primary caregiver and support your case for custody.

Per the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a growing number of courts acknowledge that people have a special relationship with animals that sets them apart from other types of property, and treating them like dependents is more aligned with today’s societal norms. 

It’s vital to partner with a compassionate and experienced attorney and communicate your concerns and wishes regarding the future of your furry friend. Your advocate can help negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement that minimizes the emotional toll of litigation and the stress on your family and your pet. 

We know that every situation is unique, and the Law Offices of J. Jeltes can provide you with a comprehensive one-on-one consultation to discuss your legal concerns and goals. Don’t hesitate to contact us to begin the conversation today.