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Divorce and Family Pets

Divorce and Family Pets

By M. Scott Gordon

When couples in Chicago file for divorce, we often hear about issues that arise from friends and family members, such as spousal maintenance worries or concerns about how the court will determine the allocation of parental responsibilities (formerly known as child custody). Couples also have anxieties about the division of marital property and what a judge will decide is equitable when assigning debts and assets to spouses. All of these issues are governed by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA).

Yet in many of those discussions, Chicago area residents are not thinking about how a court will decide who gets to keep—or take custody of—a family pet. While it might sound unnecessary or even ludicrous to argue about custody of a dog or cat, an article in Time Magazine emphasizes that, “for divorcing couples, pets can be just as important as kids.” To be sure, coming to an agreement about where a family pet will live after a divorce can become an extremely contentious issue. How might a court decide such an issue?

Dealing with the Family Dog During Divorce Proceedings

As the Time Magazine article highlights, the question of who would keep a family pet after a divorce typically never arose during most divorce proceedings over the last several decades. However, more recently, pets and their needs have become central to many divorces, and the article estimates that the matter of pet ownership or custody arises in as many as 50 percent of all current divorces. And in around 10 percent of those cases, the issue of pet custody becomes especially contentious.

While divorcing spouses likely are concerned about their cats, parrots, reptiles, and other pets, an overwhelming majority of these matters center around family dogs. Indeed, the Time Magazine article reports that approximately 88 percent of pet concerns that arise during divorces involve dogs. Also, the related issue of paying for the dog’s food and care frequently becomes a topic of concern, particularly for Chicago area residents and other pet owners who live in large, urban areas.

According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, caring for a small dog costs an average of $2,674 per year. If you are raising a bigger dog, the costs increase. Those researchers determined that providing care for a medium-sized dog costs an annual average of $2,889, while large dogs cost around $3,239.

Recent Case Law on Divorce and Family Pets

How would a Chicago area court decide a question of dog custody? In Illinois, the case to address this issue did not occur until just last year. In the case of In re Marriage of Enders and Baker (2015), an appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County concerned a divorcing husband who filed a petition to have visitation with the two dogs that he and his wife acquired the dogs during the marriage. The husband argued that he should have joint custody of the pets and access to visitation even though he moved out of the marital home and currently resided in a building that did not permit him to have pets. The trial court found in favor of the wife and did not order visitation. The husband appealed and argued that Illinois courts do have the power to order pet visitation and that such a decision would be in the best interests of the dogs.

The Appellate Court looked to a New York case for guidance, which concluded that the same “best interests of the child” standard applied in child custody, or allocation of parental responsibilities, cases should not apply to pets. Instead, the Court determined that the dogs were more like property than children, and thus an Illinois court cannot order pet visitation.

If you have questions about property division or family pet issues in divorce, you should speak with an experienced Chicago divorce lawyer as soon as possible. Contact M. Scott Gordon & Associates today to discuss your case.