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Animals And Divorce FAQ

Given all the complicated and stressful questions that come up throughout the divorce process, from property division to child custody, the implications of divorce for family pets are sometimes overlooked until the last minute. But I understand that your pet is as much a member of your family as a spouse or children. That is why I will work with you to help you understand your legal options and obligations with respect to your dog, cat or any other animal when you are ending your marriage.

For your reference, here are answers to some of the most common questions about pets and divorce.

My ex has a dog, but he never took care of it. I did. Now I want the dog, but the dog was originally his. Do I have a chance?

Yes. Historically, Illinois’ legal system has treated animals like any other property, such as a sofa or a car — just another asset to be appraised and factored into the arithmetic of property division. But due to a new law that took effect in 2018, the family court system is now encouraged to treat animals as a kind of family member. Judges will still consider each spouse’s financial contributions for an animal’s purchase and care, but they now have more leeway to consider other contributions such as time spent walking a dog or taking it to the vet, or which party has a closer relationship with the pet. As a result, the original owner of a pet no longer has a strong advantage when the question of custody is raised during divorce proceedings.

I paid for most of the dog’s care — food, vet bills, etc. Don’t I have any rights?

While financial contributions to an animal’s well-being are no longer the sole factor that judges consider when determining animal custody, money is still an important factor. Pets come with a lot of expenses, such as the initial purchase, obedience training and boarding as well as routine costs such as pet food and veterinary bills. If you paid most or all of these costs, this is a relevant fact that you should be sure the judge understands. While it does not guarantee that you will be granted custody of the animal, you will at least have an opportunity to claim reimbursement for such expenses if the pet goes to the other party.

My ex wants my dog. She says she has more of a bond with the dog than I do. How can I keep this from happening?

The most effective way to demonstrate your right to claim custody of a dog or any other animal is to take responsibility for the pet and document your efforts in a way that you can share in family court. If you are paying for your pet’s food and medical bills, be sure to keep the receipts for these expenses.

Where your pet is living while this question is being decided can also make a difference. If you and your spouse are separated and living in separate dwellings, the judge will probably ask which of you is caring for the pet during this dispute. While animals are not always awarded to the party housing the pet on the day you happen to appear in court, a judge may consider a pet’s short-term housing arrangements as a proxy for which party has the closer bond to the animal. So it’s in your interest to maintain custody of your pet during divorce proceedings to demonstrate that you should continue to have custody in the long term.

Can my ex and I share custody of the dog?

Yes. Shared custody was an option when animals were treated as property under Illinois law, and this remains an option since the law changed in 2018 to recognize animals as a kind of family member. If you and your spouse will both continue to live in the same city — and even if you won’t — shared custody is available as a compromise when neither spouse has an obvious claim to sole custody of the animal. If you have children and expect to share custody of your children, shared custody of an animal may also help your children maintain a close relationship with your pet.

Speak With An Experienced Family Law Attorney Today

I offer free initial consultations. To begin discussing your pet custody matter with a lawyer, please schedule an appointment via email or call my office at 847-693-7371 We are across from the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan, and parking is available behind the building.