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Custody Battles of Pets Coming to Illinois

Divorces in Illinois can now include a "custody" fight over pets. On January 1, 2018, the Illinois property law was amended to allow judges to consider the well-being of "companion animals" in determining who will be awarded the pet. The relevant addition to the law is in 750 ILCS 5/504(n) and reads as follows:

(n) 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. As used in this Section, “companion animal” does not include a service animal as defined in Section 2.01c of the Humane Care for Animals Act.

The law only allows the Court this discretion with respect to "companion animals" and not "service animals." A companion animal is considered a pet. Additionally, the law only applies to companion animals that are "marital property" and not to a pet that is owned by one of the parties prior to the marriage.

It is unclear, however, whether the change in the law will have a significant impact in Illinois courtrooms. Illinois Judges handling divorce cases are notorious for their unwillingness to allow significant litigation in their courtrooms regarding issues they consider "minor" (e.g., division of personal property). My belief is that many divorce judges in the Chicago area will continue to be unlikely to wade into this area notwithstanding the new law until the Illinois appellate courts issue a decision reversing a trial court judge for refusing to apply this new law. The law, however, is an important first step for pet owners who want to protect their pets in a divorce.

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