A legal victory for dogs in Springfield

Divorce can be as hard on the four-legged family members involved as it can be on the two-legged ones.

Think about it. All of a sudden, one or more of the people who have been around all the time, perhaps even from the time the dog was a puppy, is gone. The dog may have to go live somewhere new, which can be particularly tough on older dogs. Maybe the person they live with has already started dating, so the dog has to get used to new romantic interests coming by.

But an amendment to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5), signed into law in August and taking effect Jan. 1, allows judges in divorce proceedings to take the well-being of a companion animal into consideration when deciding with which party in the divorce the companion animal should end up. From the new final paragraph of the act:

"If the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for a companion animal of the parties. In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal. As used in this Section, 'companion animal' does not include a service animal as defined in Section 2.01c of the Humane Care for Animals Act."

This is a good step. Until this was passed, pets were considered nothing more than property to be assigned a monetary value and divided between the divorcing parties. It was up to the parties themselves to decide with whom the pet would end up. The courts had no standing to consider the animals' well-being.

26063698_896220305787_1773454492155859080_oAnother interesting thing about the new law is the addition of a paragraph near the beginning that states that in order for a couple to file a petition for simplified dissolution of marriage (a petition that, if granted, can make getting a divorce a less complicated and quicker process), they must have a written agreement in place allocating ownership and responsibility of any companion animals. Additionally, the amended law now states that either party in a divorce may "petition or move for the temporary allocation of sole or joint possession of and responsibility for a companion animal jointly owned by the parties." After such a petition is made, a judge is then tasked with deciding the permanent ownership and allocation of responsibility for the companion animal(s) and is required to take their well-being into consideration.

These are definitely good things. They give the courts some ability to consider an animal's best interests when deciding where they should end up, which they didn't have before.

That said, the newly amended law isn't perfect. It doesn't give judges any guidelines for considering an animal's well-being. I would hope that judges would at least refer to Illinois' Humane Care for Animals Act (510 ILCS 70) when doing their considering. The act, while imperfect, is at least a good guideline. Alas, the new sections of the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act don't say what factors judges should consider before deciding where to place a companion animal.

But despite its imperfections, this new law is a good thing. Where there were no protections for the companion animals of a divorcing couple before, there are now some protections in place. And while I think more are still needed, this is a good start.

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