Recently, Illinois enacted a new law that modifies certain provisions of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA). Specifically, while not classifying pets the same as children (they still remain assets to divide), the law states “the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal.”
What exactly does this mean and how will courts interpret it?
First, a companion animal has a distinct meaning under Illinois law separate from service animals that accompany persons with various disabilities. A companion animal is considered a pet including but not limited to canines, felines and equines.
Second, a court can receive testimony with regard to the well-being of the companion animal. This could include what spouse spent more time and resources on caring for the pet and its needs, which could cover walking and feeding to vet appointments and the like. It could also include emotional bonding the pet had with one or both spouses and attachment issues.
It seems that when we consider what a court could hear with regard to pet custody, the scope of evidence could start to resemble some of what we see in child custody cases. Is it possible multiple witnesses could be called to testify which spouse truly cared more for the pet? Could we see expert witnesses?
We shall have to see, though neither would be out of the question. The law would also allow the court to make orders with regard to whether both spouses should have access or time with the pet, under what conditions, and even who could be responsible for the financial aspects of its care.
The goal of the statute seems focused on addressing pets as more than inanimate objects of property but living creatures that require more time and attention than furniture. In this respect, the law moves divorce forward to recognize the unique aspects of pets in the lives of humans, and hopefully will prevent spouses from acting in malicious or vindictive ways toward pets or pet lovers.
Some may see this law as much ado about nothing, but ask a pet lover and you will hear a far different story, one that in many ways mirrors the love of a child.
This statute seems part of trend nationally to recognize the intrinsic worth of pets in our lives and not just chattel. Other states do make more elaborate custodial procedures, so Illinois seems headed in the direction of more and more states.
If you have questions about pet custody and divorce, contact us – we can help.