What’s in Fido’s Best Interest? Pets Treated More Like Kids Under Changes to Illinois Divorce Law

Your dog or cat may spend a lot of time lying around your house like a piece of furniture. Up until this year, a piece of furniture was an apt description of how Illinois law treated pets when their owners got divorced. Pets were considered items of personal property, subject to division under equitable distribution principles. But Illinois legislators finally recognized that our pets are much more than personal property, no matter how much they lay around. They are friends, companions, and family members.

That is why, as of January 1st, Illinois law allows judges to consider the post-divorce fate of pets much in the same way they do with children – by considering what is in the pet’s best interests or, to use the language of the new law, the pet’s “well-being.”

Public Act 100-0422 provides that spouses can enter into an agreement, or a judge can enter an order, “allocating the sole or joint ownership of or responsibility for a companion animal.” With the exception of service animals, which are excluded from this provision since they are critical to one of the two spouses, a “companion animal” under the new law could be any animal, not just dogs and cats. There are no doubt couples who have become very attached to their pet ferrets, potbellied pigs, and iguanas, and they too can avail themselves of the new law’s benefits.

While pets are no longer considered personal property, they must be considered a “marital asset” in order for a judge to allocate ownership and responsibilities between the spouses. As a practical matter, this means that only those pets acquired during the marriage are subject to the new law.

The issue of “pet custody” predates this change in the law, and the often-contentious nature of disagreements about pets during divorce was one of the reasons behind the new statute. What makes this law interesting is how judges may look at a pet’s “well-being.” For example, will a judge look at the relationship between each spouse and the pet, including who is responsible for their care and feeding, who takes it to the vet, or who walks it more? The law leaves “well-being” undefined.

As with all other matters involved in divorce, it is almost always better for a couple to reach a negotiated agreement about the care of their pet going forward. You can develop a “parenting plan” similar in many respects to the one parents must prepare. It can allocate time and responsibilities between the spouses, allowing them both to enjoy the companionship of their furry (or scaly) friend.

If you do decide to draft a shared “custody” agreement, don’t forget to include important details about which party will bear the costs of maintaining the animal. Include language that specifies who is responsible for veterinarian visits, grooming, food, and end-of-life decisions. You would be surprised how often people disagree on caring for terminally ill or ailing animals. Address these issues now before emotions take over.

If you have questions or concerns regarding this change in Illinois law, your pets, or any other issues relating to divorce, please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for a free initial consultation.

Illinois Divorce Law Won’t Look the Same Come 2016

This summer, Gov. Bruce Rauner put his signature on SB 57 (now Public Act 099-0090). This law modifies a number of sections of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act as well as other related statutes. The changes are effective as of January 1, 2016.

No One Ever is To Blame

One of the biggest changes is the elimination of all grounds for divorce other than “irreconcilable differences.”

As the law stands now, you can file for divorce alleging any number of grounds (such as adultery, physical cruelty, or mental cruelty) or you can simply assert that there are “irreconcilable differences” between you and your spouse, which is the legal term for “this just isn’t working out.”

However, if you filed on that latter “no-fault” basis, you would either have to live separate and apart for two years before you could seek a divorce or agree to a waiver, which would still require a six-month wait.

Under the revised law, the only basis for filing for divorce is “irreconcilable differences” and, if both parties agree, they can proceed with a divorce immediately (if they don’t agree, there is still a six month living separately requirement).

Allocation of “Parental Responsibilities” and “Parenting Time”

Current law about where children reside and how much time they spend with each parent is framed in terms of “custody” and “visitation.” The revised law throws those ideas out the window, drilling down to and specifically allocating all of the individual “parental responsibilities” involved in raising a child as well as allocating “parenting time.”

As has always been the case, “the best interests of the child” is the North Star on which all decisions relating to kids are made. In the new framework, the parties can either reach agreement on a “parenting plan” or the court “shall allocate to one or both of the parents the significant decision-making responsibility for each significant issue affecting the child.” Section 602.5(b). These “significant issues” include:

  • Health
  • Education
  • Religion
  • Extracurricular activities

As to allocation of “parenting time,” the court will look at many of the same factors it currently does in making “custody” determinations, including:

  • the amount of time each parent spent performing caretaking functions in the previous two years
  • any prior agreement or course of conduct between the parents relating to caretaking functions with respect to the child
  • the child’s needs
  • the distance between the parents’ residences, the cost and difficulty of transporting the child, each parent’s and the child’s daily schedules, and the ability of the parents to cooperate in the arrangement
  • the willingness and ability of each parent to place the needs of the child ahead of his or her own needs

Relocation Restrictions

Parental relocation is often a sticky issue. Currently, a parent with residential custody can move anywhere within Illinois. Under the new law, some moves require notice to the other parent and ultimately approval by the court if the non-moving parent objects. Specifically, notice and/or approval is required if:

  • a parent with residential custody residing in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties is seeking to move more than 25 miles from their current residence
  • a parent in any other Illinois county is seeking to move more than 50 miles from their current residence

Additionally, a parent with residential custody can move up to 25 miles away without agreement or approval even if the new residence is across the Illinois state line.

Call Me If You Have Questions

There are many other changes to Illinois divorce law that are part of this overhaul as well. If you are considering a divorce and have questions about how these changes to the law may impact your decision-making, please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for a consultation.