BROWN: Divorce Court judges can now ask, who’s a good pet owner?

SHARE BROWN: Divorce Court judges can now ask, who’s a good pet owner?

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown’s dog “Gilbert” in 2008. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

I wonder what Gilbert would have thought of a new Illinois law that will require judges to consider the “well being” of the animal in deciding how divorcing couples resolve disputes over who gets to keep the family pet.

More specifically, I wonder how Gilbert would have weighed in on the question of whether he would have been better off living with me or my wife.

Entirely theoretical, of course, with the dog already dead, and my wife still putting up with me, although come January 1, it could be very real for many couples.

That’s when what is being called the state’s new “pet custody” law takes effect.


Instead of divorcing couples dividing up the pets as they would other personal property such as furniture and appliances, they now can ask the judge to consider what’s better for the animal.

“Basically, the court has the power to treat your dog like your child,” said Alan Toback, one of Chicago’s leading divorce lawyers.

Others might quibble with that characterization.

Considering the well being of the dog will not be treated quite the same as weighing the “best interests” of a child in a custody battle.

But it’s clear state lawmakers have made pets a “new class of property” to be treated more deferentially than other marital assets, said Erika Wyatt, an animal-loving divorce lawyer with the powerhouse firm of Schiller DuCanto & Fleck.

Erika Wyatt. Provided Photo.

Erika Wyatt. Provided Photo.

Wyatt notes, for instance, that courts don’t normally consider which former spouse will do a better job taking care of an automobile or dishwasher, as they now may with Fido or any other “companion animal.”

Court disputes over who gets to keep the family pet in a divorce are nothing new.

Wyatt tells the story of a couple with four toy poodles they treated to a lavish lifestyle that included regular birthday parties with their poodle friends and special costumes for Halloween.

But the wife moved out of the home, and the husband took possession of the poodles. The wife wanted the dogs back. There were allegations of abuse.

In the end, the judge refused to get involved, and the husband kept the poodles, Wyatt said.

Toback told me be about a couple who shared custody of their dog after the divorce, flying the pooch back and forth between here and California.

That arrangement came undone, he said, when the wife began giving suppositories to the dog before the return trip so that it would be sure to relieve itself on the ex-husband’s carpets. After that, the husband was allowed to keep the dog, he said.

Wyatt advises people contemplating divorce who expect a dispute over possession of a pet to keep records that would help document their role in caring for the animal.

To help determine the issue of the pet’s well-being, judges may take into account everything from which spouse takes the pet to the veterinarian to who accompanied it to obedience training, she said.

It would be pointless for me to pick a fight with my wife about who was a better owner to Gilbert, our wise-cracking Cocker Spaniel mix who died nearly two years ago.

But I’ve never let that stop me.

I always thought I should be the favored owner because I took him for his walks every morning and night, rain or shine, for nearly 15 years.

My wife would counter that if it weren’t for her efforts to make appointments, Gilbert would have never been to the groomer or the veterinarian.

I’d argue I did as much as anyone to keep Gilbert’s food and water bowls filled, but Gilbert might have pointed out that my wife was better about slipping him a carrot or chunk of lettuce while preparing dinner.

I was the one who took him to the dog park for “socialization” but that never seemed to keep Gilbert from sitting in my wife’s lap at night to watch television.

Judges are just going to love listening to arguments like this.

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