Adopting a dog or cat is often one of the first things couples do together after they get married. A study by the State University of New York at Buffalo even suggests that couples who own cats or dogs generally have better relationships and respond better to stress than their non-pet-owning counterparts.
But when marriages end in divorce, divorce attorneys in Chicago can't really do much in the way of visitation or other custody issues typically associated with children.
That's because, as Chicago Daily Herald columnist Burt Constable says, pets have "no more civil rights than a table lamp." The key word is "ownership," which is exactly how Illinois law treats pets in divorce proceedings.
Illinois family law attorney Raiford Palmer is quoted in the column with a similar statement:
"An animal is treated like a television set or any other piece of property."
Okay, fair enough. But what about visitation? Illinois family law attorney Matthew A. Kirsh says there's no such thing. There are no "custody" issues with pets, at least not in the legal sense, only ownership.
But it's not that simple.
Arlington Heights lawyer Angela Peters tells Mr. Constable that no one really has the answer to how pets are treated in a divorce and that it's still evolving. While the law does not treat pets as children or otherwise subject to custody, financial support or visitation, an American Association of Matrimonial Law article points out that judges sometimes do order joint custody of pets (PDF).
Ms. Peters explains how there is more leeway than established law may suggest:
"Right now every single county, every single judge can come up with a different opinion based on whatever."
Another attorney quoted in Mr. Constable's column says no single state has well-defined rules about how to deal with pets during a divorce. So while the default position is to treat pets as property, judges are free to treat them as something more than just a lamp or a TV.
How Do Judges Decide Disputed Property Issues? (FindLaw ABA Family Legal Guide)
Pet Custody in Divorce and Separation: Who Gets Fido? (FindLaw Law & Daily Life Blog)