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New Illinois law treats pets more like children in custody cases

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/25/2017 Leonor Vivanco-Prengaman
a man and a woman sitting on a rock: A new Illinois law set to take effect Jan. 1, 2018, will allow pets to be considered for sole or joint ownership during divorce proceedings. © Leah Hammond / Design Pics A new Illinois law set to take effect Jan. 1, 2018, will allow pets to be considered for sole or joint ownership during divorce proceedings.

CHICAGO — Judges in divorce cases can consider the well-being of pets in allocating sole or joint ownership, under an Illinois law that takes effect Jan. 1.

“It sort of starts treating your animal more like children” instead of property, said Illinois state Sen. Linda Holmes, an animal lover who sponsored the legislation. “If you’re going before a judge, they’re allowed to take the best interest of the animal into consideration.”

The law, similar to one in Alaska, applies only to pets that are marital assets, not service animals.

Pets are another issue to hash out in a divorce, in addition to money, children and possessions. For years, pets have been treated no different from other pieces of property to be divided between a divorcing couple.

Most couples are able agree on pets outside of court, said Jeffrey Knipmeyer, a partner at Nottage and Ward, a family law practice in Chicago. In his 21 years of experience, Knipmeyer has tried the issue in court only a few times.

According to a recent survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, about 30 percent of attorneys have seen a decrease over the past three years in pet custody cases.

But when a pet custody case does reach court, the state law could be helpful in giving judges guidance on how to decide, said Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, president of the academy.

Over the past decade, the question of pet custody has become more prevalent, particularly when it involves a two-income couple with no children who shared responsibility for and are both attached to a pet, she said.

The new law gives judges more leeway in deciding what to do with a pet instead of simply giving it to one side or the other, Knipmeyer said.

The matter could be resolved with both parties sharing custody or, as the law calls it, joint ownership.

“It’s a positive step in the law to include now a consideration for the well-being of the animal,” he said. “Most pet owners think of their dogs as being something more than a piece of property. They think of them as a member of their family.”

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