If you’re breaking up with someone you’ve been with for a long time, dividing up the stuff you own can be a source of frustration. Even more upsetting is determining who gets to keep the pet, unless it clearly belongs to one person or the other. These so-called pet custody cases can end up in court, even if you’re not getting a divorce. Couples who are ending a dating relationship, or even roommates, can go to court if they can’t solve this type of issues.
I say “so-called” pet custody cases because they aren’t really about custody. Under the laws in Illinois, pets are considered property. They are not children, so the term custody is a bit off. But regardless of the term, pet ownership is its own type of dispute and there aren’t a lot of clear-cut rules for the courts to follow.
In child custody, for example, it’s about what’s best for the child. In property division, which tends to be more applicable to pets, it’s about ownership. Property division is based on what is equitable or whether certain property belonged to one person prior to the relationship. However, this can be too simplistic when it comes to a pet.
So what matters in pet cases? It ends up being up to the judge. It’s generally accepted that pet ownership is not just property ownership, despite what the laws says. Many pets are considered family members and there is a relationship that doesn’t exist between a person and, say, a couch. What’s in the best interest of the pet may very well come into the equation.
However, judges aren’t likely to go all the way in the other direction and work out custody and visitation schedules, so if couples can work this all out themselves, it can be a good way to come to an agreement.
In any given pet case, it could end up being a combination of custody-like issues, such as the health and well-being of the pet, and property ownership issues, such as who bought the pet or who has cared for it most of the time, paid the vet bills, etc. For example, it might matter if one person has a busy job and is never home. That wouldn’t be good for a pet that requires a lot of care.
It’s a real issue and lawyers have seen it more and more, and they aren’t getting much guidance from the law. This doesn’t mean the outcome won’t be fair, but it does mean that the outcome can be difficult to predict.
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