Given the importance of pets to today’s Americans, it’s hard to believe that dogs were once kept primarily as a labor force and were seen as nothing more than another type of livestock. Now, pets — dogs, cats and other animals — tend to be beloved companions. Many people even refer to their four-legged friends as their “fur babies,” likening them to children, particularly among Millennials.
That’s creating some major hiccups in divorce cases everywhere. Years ago, ownership of a pet was decided mostly based on which spouse’s name was on the adoption or registration papers. These days, it’s not so simple. Couples going through a divorce may be willing to compromise on a lot, but they often go to bat for custody or visitation rights over the dog (and, sometimes, the cat). Some couples even wind up back in court, well after the divorce is over, due to allegations of neglect or abuse of a pet. Pet owners have also occasionally refused to comply with a court’s order regarding their pets, which has even led to contempt charges.
Alaska was the first state to recognize the changes in the way that Americans view their pets, requiring family court judges to decide custody of the pets much the same way that they do children. Illinois was the second to do so, in 2018.
So, how do you protect your rights to your pet when a divorce is imminent? Start by gathering up all the information you have to support your position that you’re the one who is most responsible for the animal. Make sure that you save receipts for vet visits, toys, medication and bedding. Keep track of how much time you spend with your pet and what pet-related chores (bathing, walking, feeding and cleaning up after) you do.
Finally, talk to your attorney early about the situation if you suspect that your spouse may fight you for custody of your pet during a divorce.