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Untangle the Knot: Custody for the Family Pet

two cats playing in cardboard boxes, moving to a new house

Pets are not treated the same as children in divorce cases, but they are instead regarded as items of marital property subject to equitable property division rules in Illinois. Even though a person may view the family pet as a vital member of the family similar to a child, there are no laws that control custody of pets. People may be able to negotiate pet custody and visitation agreements or litigate the issue in court with custody lawyers.

two cats playing in cardboard boxes, moving to a new house

Pets As Property

In Illinois, there are no laws that govern the custody of pets. Pets are viewed no differently under the law than any other type of personal property such as household furniture or electronics. This can be disconcerting to a divorcing person who views his or her pet like a child. Unfortunately, custody lawyers sometimes deal with cases in which their clients may be closer to their pets, but their spouses attempt to use their animals against them in the divorce. Because of the special relationships that people have with their pets, the pets can be a powerful tool for bargaining. Judges do have substantial discretion in how they divide property in the event a custody and visitation agreement cannot be negotiated.

Illinois is an equitable property division state. Unlike community property states, which divide the marital property in equal portions, Illinois instead divides property according to what judges deem to be fair and just. Because judges are able to have such wide latitude in making property division decisions, some people try to negotiate property division settlements that include a custody and visitation schedule for the family pet.

Negotiated Settlements

In a majority of states, courts have simply refused to hold custody hearings regarding a pet. This leads some people to hire custody lawyers for help with negotiating contracts regarding their pets. These agreements may be negotiated through out-of-court informal processes such as mediation. If a party to the agreement violates it, there is no guarantee that a court will take it very seriously. People who are considering trying to negotiate agreements regarding the custody of their pets might want to think through several things, including the following:

  • The costs involved with owning a pet while single
  • How pet exchanges would occur
  • The amount of time pet ownership requires
  • Care needs, including playtime with the dog and dog walking
  • The actual attachment to the animal

Another consideration might be whether or not the former couple is able to get along well enough to exchange the pet and continue to see each other on a regular basis. The likelihood of reaching an agreement may also be something to think about, as the process may be expensive.

Strengthening Pet Ownership Claims In Litigation

In some cases handled by custody lawyers, the divorcing spouses will try to use their pets as weapons to wield against one another. A person may battle his or her spouse for the pet simply to punish him or her. Understanding that doing so simply increases the costs of the divorce for both parties is important. When a person is truly attached to the pet, there are several ways that he or she may strengthen his or her claims to receiving the pet in court litigation.

Gathering evidence showing that a person is the one that provided the primary care for the pet may help to sway a judge. For example, if the person is the one who purchased the food and treats for the pet, walked it, took it to the veterinarian and groomer, evidence of those activities and tasks may significantly weigh in his or her favor if the issue is litigated in a litigated divorce hearing. People who are headed for hearings should understand that it is unlikely that a judge will order a shared custody situation for their dogs or other pets. If they are unable to reach agreements on their own, they should prepare for the idea that the judge will assign complete ownership and control of the pet to one party or the other.


It is unlikely that a separate hearing will be scheduled just to hear an argument over the family pet. Any arguments that are made will normally be presented during the final divorce hearing in litigated divorces as only a small portion of the overall property division argument. One court in New York did hold a separate hearing about a pet, but that was an extremely rare event.

Pets hold special places in the hearts of their owners. When people divorce, they should understand that their pets are viewed as personal property instead of as valued family members. Without a negotiated agreement, it is unlikely that a court will entertain any joint custody orders for the family pet and will instead assign ownership to one or the other spouse.

Uncontested divorce lawyer Denise Erlich is passionate about helping divorcing couples in the greater Chicagoland area transition to their new life as seamlessly as possible. Ms. Erlich patiently guides her clients through every step of the divorce process and provides clients with candid advice about their case and legal options, so they can make informed decisions about their future.

Years of Experience: More than 20 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois
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