New Illinois Divorce Law Lets Judges Decide Best Owner for Pets

In most U.S. states, when a couple divorces, their pets are considered as objects, no different than furniture or automobiles. If there’s a dispute over who gets custody of the pets, the legal owner usually wins. The legal owner isn’t necessarily the person who takes care of the pet and has the strongest emotional attachment, but the person whose name is on the adoption certificate or sales contract.

Last year, Alaska became the first state to require courts to consider the well-being of pets and to allow judges to assign joint custody of these family members.

A year later, Illinois has enacted a similar law. Passed last August and in effect as of Jan. 1, SB1261 amends the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act by allowing judges to award custody to the person who spent the most time with the pet. Previously, pets were divided between the divorcing couple as part of the estate.

After all, a pet “has feelings and emotions,” as state Sen. Linda Holmes, who sponsored the bill, told WQAD. “They’re looking at what would be in the best interest of the animal.” (Speaking of what would be in the best interest of the animal, last year Holmes also sponsored a bill passed into law that prohibits the use of elephants in circuses and other traveling animal acts in Illinois.)

Divorcing couples can now present their cases to Illinois judges, explaining why one person or the other would be the best pet parent. The new law only applies to companion animals, not service animals.

“The parties to a dissolution proceeding may file a joint petition for simplified dissolution if they have, among other conditions, executed a written agreement allocating ownership and responsibility for any domestic animals owned by the parties,” the law states. It provides that in issuing an order concerning the allocation of ownership of or responsibility for a pet, the court must take the pet’s well-being into consideration.

“Who does the day-to-day stuff? Who buys the pet food? Who stays on top of vaccinations?” Erika Wyatt, a Chicago-based divorce attorney and animal rights advocate, told WQAD. “Anything that happens in the normal care for the pet is going to become relevant now.”

It should be noted, as Wyatt pointed out in a blog post, that the new Illinois law does not use terms like “custody” or “best interests,” and still refers to pets as “assets.” But Wyatt considers it a step forward as far as recognizing the value of pets.

“The court is now required to consider the pet’s ‘well-being,’ which is a significant departure from the way all other property is treated under the law,” she wrote. “For instance, courts do not consider which party will get more regular oil changes when it allocates a car, or who rinses the dishes more thoroughly when allocating a dishwasher.”

If you’re in a relationship in Illinois, Wyatt suggests you and your partner maintain adoption/ownership papers, veterinary receipts and training records that indicate who acquired the pet and who primarily cares for the pet since, who knows, one day they may provide important documentary evidence.

Take Action

If you think this law is a good idea, please sign and share this Care2 petition asking other states in the U.S. to pass similar laws.

Photo credit: TerriC


hELEN h1 months ago


michela c
michela c2 months ago


Carole R
Carole R2 months ago

If they can't decide between themselves, someone has to make a decision. Visiting rights, maybe?

David C
David C2 months ago


Hannah K
Hannah K2 months ago

thanks for posting

hELEN h2 months ago


Sue H
Sue H2 months ago

All states should be required to take the best interests of course companion animals in divorce cases.

Renata B
Renata B2 months ago

Hopefully another step towards recognising animals for what they are, fully sentient beings, and not as chattel.

JoAnn Paris
JoAnn Paris4 months ago

Thank you for this very interesting article.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O4 months ago

getting control over the pet could be a malicious way to get back at a partner