Family Law and Divorce

What Happens to Family Pets When Couples Divorce?

Divorce attorneys talk a lot about things like child custody, maintenance payments, and distribution of jointly owned assets. You rarely hear them talk about pets. Still, any divorce attorney with significant experience knows that pets are often part of the equation.

The Chicago divorce lawyers at ABM Family Law say that Illinois is one of only a small handful of states with laws addressing how to deal with pets in a divorce situation. They also say that this is an emerging area of divorce law bound to evolve over time. It will be interesting to see what other states do as they develop their own laws governing pets and divorcing couples.

Service Animals vs. Pets

One of the first things to consider is that Illinois draws a distinction between service animals and pets – or companion animals, if you will. A service animal is an animal specifically trained to assist a disabled person. Service animals are recognized by state law as being the property of the disabled individuals they are trained to serve.

As a result of that legal recognition, courts do not have the authority to determine who maintains ownership of a service animal after divorce. Ownership automatically belongs to the disabled individual. As for all other pets, including emotional support animals that do not qualify as service animals, ownership can be determined by divorce courts.

This is one area of law destined to evolve as the definition of ‘service animal’ changes. We already know just how controversial emotional support animals are. It may be that future courts will have no choice but to step in and define what constitutes a genuine service animal for people who need emotional support.

Ownership and Custody

How does a court decide on pet ownership? ABM Family Law says the starting point is when the pet was obtained. If a pet were obtained by one party prior to their marriage, the animal would be considered a non-marital asset. It is likely that a court would award sole ownership to the one who originally obtained it.

The animal would be considered a marital asset if it were obtained during the marriage. In such cases, Illinois courts have the latitude to grant sole ownership to one party or joint ownership among them both. In the case of joint ownership, the court would also have to decide custody.

As bizarre as it sounds, divorce attorneys in Illinois now have to deal with pet custody issues. But that’s the way it is. In a perfect world, divorcing couples would work such issues out among themselves so that courts did not have to get involved.

Caring for Pets Financially

Joint ownership and custody presents a number of additional challenges for divorcing couples. One such challenge is caring for pets financially. Just like kids, pets have to eat. They have to see the vet every now and again. Who pays the bills is something divorcing couples have to figure out before their agreement is finalized.

This particular factor might make it easy for one party to surrender any ownership interest in family pets. Why be saddled with the expense of caring for a pet when the other party wants it? Agreeing to full ownership lets them off the hook as far as any financial responsibility is concerned.

If nothing else, the pet issue is clear evidence that divorce creates just as many problems as it solves. It’s too bad more people don’t think about these things before they head down the divorce road. How many would commit to working things out if they knew ahead of time just how much trouble divorcing is?

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