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For many people, pets are their family, and an astounding 65 percent of households have at least one pet. With that being said, it should not be surprising that divorcing couples often argue over who will get “custody” of the beloved family dog, cat, or other animal. While couples may argue otherwise, the truth is judges have “no authority” over shared pets during a divorce proceeding.
An example of this comes out of Illinois: during the divorce, the husband petitioned to allow visitation with two dogs who were residing with the wife. Until that time, the wife had denied him visitation. The court ordered a temporary visitation for the husband, allowing him to spend time with the dogs every other weekend from 10:00 a.m. on Saturday until 8:00 p.m. on Sunday.
When the divorce trial began, one of the issues was the couple’s relationship with the two dogs and who had “rights” to them. In defense of the visitation order, the wife explained that when the couple separated the husband moved out of the family home and left the animals in her care. Additionally, someone was always home with the dogs, and they enjoyed their backyard.
This was important – the husband did not have someone to be with the dogs, and he lived in an apartment without a backyard. After the trial ended, the judge awarded “custody” of the two dogs to the wife and denied the husband visitation. The husband appealed the decision, with him noting the court had the authority to order visitation and his visitation was in the dogs’ best interests.
During the appeal process, the court established that the sole statutory definition of a “pet owner” would be defined using the Animal Control Act. Under this legislation, an “owner” is defined as “any person having a right of property in an animal, or one who keeps or harbors an animal, has it in his or her care, or acts as its custodian.” In this case, the wife was awarded ownership of the dogs.
In conclusion, as society moves from viewing pets as “property” and begins to view them more and more as family, there will likely be more instances of couples arguing over the “custody” of their beloved family pets. While it is possible for legislation to change with the times, the current laws stand that when a marriage ends, the court has no legal authority to award “custody” of pets.