The New Illinois Pet Custody Law

December 28th, 2017 by

The New Illinois Pet Custody Law

On January 1, 2018, family law in Illinois includes changes regarding the “custody” of pets or as it is being referred to, “the pet custody law.” When a couple divorces, property is divided between them, including furniture, money, houses, and all manner of other property – until now, pets were just considered just property too. The courts in Illinois did not have the power to allocate responsibility for a companion animal, the way they allocate responsibility for children. Starting in the new year, the court shall allocate either sole ownership or joint ownership of a pet, and with ownership comes responsibility for that pet, now court-ordered.

The old law, 750 ILCS 5/503, which is the law that governs the disposition of marital property, is amended with a new paragraph, 750 ILCS 5/503(n). The Illinois legislature placed the new pet custody law in Section 5 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, in subsection 503, the statute governing the disposition of property in a divorce.

Section 5/503 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act is amended as follows:

  • If the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for a companion animal of the parties.
  • In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal.

Companions or property?

The Illinois courts now recognize that pets aren’t just property, they are companions. Of course we have long seen the advantages of pet ownership, for both the pet and the owner. Physical health benefits to the pet owner, such as lower blood pressure, weight loss, and lowered anxiety level have been shown through clinical studies. And just touching a pet can alter a person’s mental state. Hospitals and long-term care homes have long used companion animals to visit patients who are not mobile, because there is an almost inexplicable improvement in a patient’s health after simply being in the presence of a companion animal. All of this science is not new to the pet owner, and when the pet owner is facing the dissolution of their marriage, it is even more important that the relationship between the pet and the owner be preserved. The new law provides for the allocation of possession of, and responsibility for, the companion animal in the dissolution of marriage process.

The new law does not define what a companion animal is, although it does exclude service animals. It will be interesting to see how the courts apply this new law, for example, how will the court determine possession of a valuable show dog? Or a valuable race horse? If you are facing divorce in the new year, it is important that you obtain experienced and knowledgeable family law counsel.

Considering the well-being of the pet

Beginning in 2018, the court is required to consider the pet’s well-being when deciding which party is allocated possession of the pet, and all of the responsibility that comes with possession of a pet.  This new law will make sense to pet owners who understand that their pet contributes to their physical and mental health. The new pet custody law could also add a new level of conflict to the proceedings. Talk to your attorney about any companion animals in the marriage, and discuss the ultimate possession of, and responsibility for, that animal. In the event both parties want to be awarded the same pet, be sure to provide documents such as adoption papers, purchase receipts, veterinary bills, and registration papers to your counsel.

In every divorce, there are critical documents and divorce discovery questions which must be prepared by both parties. One of these documents, the financial disclosure, is both necessary and complicated. Choose a divorce law firm that will assist you in producing a complete and compelling document upon which basis the court may make the correct decisions.

Compared with the average cost of child support in Illinois, a pet’s support may seem trivial, but beginning on January 1, 2018, your divorce may feature an additional contest over the possession of your pet. 

Want to Learn More?

If you think your pet may be the subject of a dispute, please contact Gwendolyn J. Sterk and The Family Law Group for a free, no-obligation consultation to discuss the details of the Illinois pet custody law . You can contact our office at 815-600-8950 or by sending us a message here.

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