Can I Ask for Pet Visitation?

Most of us know at least a few people who identify as “pet parents.” In fact, many of us are actually pet parents ourselves. The phrase “pet parents,” in this context, is more than a person or a couple who owns companion animals. Pet parents, in general, do not see the relationship as a master-pet dynamic, opting instead for more of a surrogate child situation—even for those pet parents who actually have children of their own as well. For the most part, being a pet parent is a more serious approach to pet ownership than many are willing undertake but there is nothing inherently wrong with it. But, what happens when pet parents get divorced? Could either party ask the court for visitation rights with their beloved four-legged companion?

According to a ruling by an Illinois appeals court from the end of 2015, if you are a divorcing pet parent, you are on your own when it comes to making pet visitation arrangements.

In Re Marriage of Enders

The ruling was issued by Illinois First District Court of Appeals in a case that involved a couple divorcing after 10 years of marriage. During the initial divorce proceedings, the husband successfully petitioned the trial court for temporary visitation rights with the couple’s two dogs. He had left the dogs in his wife’s care when he had moved out before the divorce. Upon finalization of the divorce, however, the trial court vacated the temporary visitation order and gave the dogs solely to the wife.

On appeal, the man claimed that the trial court made a mistake in vacating the visitation order and that such visitation was in the best interests of the dogs. He also requested that the appeals court clarify that an Illinois court does have the legal authority to grant pet visitation rights.

Looking to Other States

Perhaps the most challenging part of the man’s claim was the fact that no previous cases in Illinois had actually addressed pet visitation before giving the court no precedent to utilize. Thus, the court was forced to look for other cases in states with similar divorce laws, finding a good example in a New York case from a few years ago. In that case, the New York Supreme Court would not apply “best interest of a dog” standard because, by law, animals are simply not considered as important as children. The New York court did acknowledge that companion animals are more than property, but maintained that awarding pet visitation would open the door to “endless post-divorce litigation.”

Applying a similar standard, the Illinois appellate court refused to overturn the lower court’s ruling and noted that a trial court is usually best suited to see, hear, and evaluate the parties to a divorce and their testimony. Both courts agreed that Illinois law only makes reference to pet ownership in the Animal Control Act, which specifies that an owner is “any person having a right of property in an animal, or who keeps or harbors an animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian.” In this case, the man left the dogs in his wife’s care, and she acted as their custodian. The court, as a result, found her to be the sole owner. With no references to pet visitation in the law, the court did not have authority to order it, and the appeals court refused to set a precedent that suggested otherwise.

Customize Your Own Agreement

The appeals court ruling does not, however, preclude divorcing spouses from negotiating their own agreements on pet custody and visitation. While the court will not make such a ruling, pet parents can certainly develop an arrangement that works for them and protects the health and well-being of their animals. To learn more about negotiating a divorce settlement agreement, contact an experienced Wheaton family law attorney. Call 630-904-3033 for a free initial consultation at Abear Law Offices today.