Illinois Governor Considering a Bill That Awards Custody of Pets in Divorce
When the divorce process is put into motion, sudden and abrupt shifts in the structure of the affected household shortly follow. As a parent/spouse moves out of the home, those left behind must figure out how to adjust to this new reality. Children are known to struggle with these drastic changes in living situations, and the focus of divorcing spouses are, understandably, geared towards making the transition as easy as possible.
Child custody, generally, is a big facet of many divorces. However, another member of a household that can be overlooked in the shuffle — one that still feels the impact of the divorce — is the family pet. How central the family pet is to a household varies greatly from family to family, but deciding which spouse will have primary responsibility for the animal's care can be a hotly contested issue.
Americans, in general, place a high degree of importance on their pets that is reflected in the amount of money consumers annually spend on pet-related purchases — $66.75 billion in 2016. Recognizing the new status of pets as full family members in many households, as well as the difficulties of determining which spouse will retain possession in a divorce, the Illinois Legislature passed a Bill that addresses this issue. The Bill is currently awaiting the governor's signature, and would provide clarification and direction to Courts when pet custody is unsettled.
Proposed Pet Custody Law
The proposed law would treat companion animals (considered by the owner to be a pet, and not owned for a service-related reason) as marital assets, and give Courts the authority in divorce cases to award sole or joint possession and responsibility for a mutually-owned companion animal to one or both parties.
The main consideration in the Court's decision would be which arrangement will best provide for the animal's well being. Alternatively, the parties could include provisions for the allocation of ownership and responsibility for companion animals in settlement agreements that are incorporated into the divorce decree. By designating a companion animal as a marital asset, the law makes any arrangement recognized by the Court on the possession and responsibility for the animal legally enforceable.
If the governor chooses not to sign the Bill, leaving the law as is, the ability of divorcing spouses to settle this issue will be limited. As it stands, animals are viewed as personal property, and Courts will award ownership to one party based on who has the greater interest. Establishing which party as the greater interest in personal property often comes down to which one invested the most money, which is not necessarily the best approach when pets are involved. Thus, awarding shared rights to an animal is never an option if a Judge is involved.
Consequently, any arrangement designed to share responsibility must come through mutual agreement by the parties themselves; however, a Court will not enforce the agreed-upon terms. Thus, following the terms would be purely on the honor of each party.
In spite of these limitations, deciding on shared responsibility for a family pet is sometimes necessary, especially if children are involved. As a starting point, the following could serve as a roadmap for a basic agreement:
- Decide who is best able to care for the pet, i.e., who has the financial resources, the time, and the emotional attachment;
- Consider mirroring who has possession of the pet with the parenting time schedule, so the pet is always with the children; or
- Decide on a schedule based upon when each party is most available to care for the pet, i.e., weekday vs. weekend or days vs. nights.
Consult a Family Law Attorney
Custody of a pet is just one of the many issues that occur in divorce, and forming agreements without the outside input of an experienced Rolling Meadows family law attorney can easily lead to stalemate, or a very one-sided settlement. The Law Office of Nicholas W. Richardson, P.C. focuses on creating amicable resolutions to contested issues between divorcing spouses, so Court involvement is unnecessary. If you have questions about your divorce, contact the office today for a free initial consultation.