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Determining “custody” of your pet in your divorce

Some divorcing couples – particularly those without children – find that their greatest source of conflict during the process is who will assume ownership of a beloved pet.

They may both love their “fur baby” and want it to stay in their lives. One spouse may consider themselves the primary caregiver who handles most of the vet appointments, grooming, walking and other responsibilities. Finally, in some cases, one spouse will fight to keep the pet just to hurt the other.

How Illinois law addresses pets during divorce

Fortunately, Illinois is one of few states that consider pets to be more than property like cars, homes and stock portfolios to be divided fairly, at least, to some extent. If the animal belonged to one spouse before they were married, it’s typically considered theirs.

If it was adopted during the marriage, it’s generally considered marital property. If that’s the case, and a couple can’t agree on where their four-legged family member will live, a family court judge can determine who gets the pet based on which spouse has been the main caregiver.

There are other factors that should also be considered as this scenario is addressed. For example, when couples have children they’ll share custody of, pets will often move between homes with them. A pet who’s older and/or very ill may be better off remaining in one home. The same can be true for very young animals.

Working out your own pet custody agreement

If you and your soon-to-be ex are agreeable to splitting time with your critter, you may want to work out a “pet custody agreement.” That’s especially advisable if you have children and your pet will be transitioning between homes with them. This can let you both spend time with your beloved four-legged friend. Pets can be very healing at a time of great personal sadness and tumult, which divorce often is.

You may want to work out a support agreement as well to cover your pet’s health care, food, grooming and other expenses, and determine how big decisions will be made – such as whether to have a costly surgery or when it’s time to euthanize your pet.

If you and your spouse can work out a plan for your pet together, that’s one less matter you’ll have to take before a judge. Seeking legal guidance from a professional who understands the importance of your pet in your life can help you work toward the resolution you’re seeking.