While the laws of both Kansas and Missouri are designed to protect the best interests of children, there is one family member whose laws do not protect the best interest of the four-legged children of a family. The laws for pets are construed to benefit the owner, instead of the pet. While many consider pets part of the family, most states see pets as personal property, just like cars or the living room sofa. However, three states, Alaska, Illinois, and California, now have statutes that require the family court to treat the division of pets in more of a custodial fashion. This can include a shared custody schedule and payment of pet support.
Section 5.503(n) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution Marriage Act states:
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.
This means that if the court finds that the pet was acquired after the marriage, it is a marital asset. The court will then allocate sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for the animal. Just like a child, the pet's well-being will be taken into consideration in the Illinois court. Those furry animals are treated like part of the family.
However, Missouri and Kansas have not progressed quite that far. Missouri and Kansas continue to treat pets as property under the law. The court will go through the same process to determine who gets the pet as it would to determine who gets the big-screen television, unfortunately. Most pet owners find this sad and upsetting as they do not view their pet in the same light as a piece of furniture. Technically the court is supposed to consider the ownership and monetary value of a dog, cat, rabbit, parrot, snake, or any other pet and award it (if marital property) to the party who values the item of personal property at the greatest amount, thereby maximizing the value of the marital estate.
Just like any other marital asset, couples can come to some sort of agreement about who gets the family pet. There are some things to consider when making the decision about who gets the pet:
- The Move Factor: Pets, like many of us, do not do well with changes. Moving out of the family home could cause extra stress and can make pets nervous.
- The Bond Factor: Adults and children alike can be super bonded to a pet. This can be especially true for children when parents are arguing. Taking away a pet when it is extremely bonded to someone can cause damage to that person’s well-being as well as the animal’s mental state. Some families will actually agree that the pet goes between homes with a child and thus, as both spouses share children, they will similarly share the pet(s).
- The Time Factor: Do not forget that pets take up time and pets need attention. If a pet parent works from sunup to sundown, serious thought needs to go into if that schedule is doable with a pet needing attention. Similarly, if one pet parent travels frequently, it may be unreasonable to think he or she can care for a pet after separation.
- The Split-Up Factor: If there are two or more pets in the home, it may seem easiest to just split the pets up and allow each spouse to take one. However, pets are often emotionally attached to each other. Splitting them up could harm them emotionally.
Taking these factors into consideration is important in determining the best environment for the family pets. If spouses cannot come to an agreement about who gets the pet, the spouses should request their attorney work this into an overall settlement, negotiations, and meaningful discussions about what is best for the pet and their needs, the spouses and the children involved. But do not forget, if you and your spouse cannot determine who gets the family pets, the court may simply choose by lot which spouse gets them. Think about your furry family members when determining what is best for your family!
If you have a family law situation in which the custody or award of the pet is going to be at issue, you need a caring and empathetic family law attorney on your team to guide you through this process. Please call Pingel Family Law today at (816) 208-8130 to discuss your options and to allow our team to advocate for your furry family member!