New divorce court cases surge as people start the New Year with a clean slate, and put the holiday stress behind them. But divorce can also lead to a pet custody fight over your four-legged fur baby. Well, there’s big news in pet custody.

Pet Custody News

In Illinois at least, according to a new state law effective January 1st, judges in divorce proceedings can consider the well-being of companion animals in allocating sole or joint ownership.

According to the sponsor of the legislation, a self-proclaimed animal lover:

It sort of starts treating your animal more like children instead of property. If you’re going before a judge, they’re allowed to take the best interest of the animal into consideration.

The new Illinois law, similar to one in Alaska, applies only to pets that are marital assets, not service animals.

Pets are another issue to hash out in a divorce, in addition to money, children and possessions. For years, pets have been treated no differently than other pieces of property to be divvied up between the couple.

Florida Pet Custody

I’ve written about pet custody issues before. Florida doesn’t have pet custody or visitation laws. Florida courts are already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of children.

So, Florida courts have not, or cannot, undertake the same responsibility as to animals.

A chocolate lab may be considered a member of the family to you, but under Florida law, your dog “Brownie” is just personal property to be divided in divorce in Florida.

Pet Custody Around the Nation

Not all states have ruled out a visitation schedule for dogs like Florida. For instance, while Texas also views dogs as personal property, in one case a Texas court authorized visitation.

Pet custody cases are becoming more and more prevalent around the country. That is because state lawmakers and advocacy groups are promoting the notion that the legal system should act in the best interests of animals.

About 15 years ago, states began to allow people to leave their estates to care for their pets. Recently, courts have gone so far as to award shared custody, visitation and even alimony payments to pet owners.

According to a recent survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, about 30% of attorneys have seen a decrease over the past three years in pet custody cases in front of a judge.

Over the last decade, the question of pet custody has become more prevalent, particularly when it involves a two-income couple with no children who shared responsibility for and are both attached to the pet, she said.

The new Illinois law gives judges more leeway in deciding what to do with a pet instead of simply giving it to one side or the other. The matter could be resolved with both parties sharing custody or, as the law calls it, joint ownership.

The Chicago Tribune article is here.