A new Illinois divorce law will let a judge decide who is the best owner for the family pet.

Previously, companion animals were treated like furniture in a divorce. They were divvied up between the splitting couple as part of the value of the estate.

But on Jan. 1, a judge will now be able to consider who walks the dog more or who cleans out the fish tank and award the pet accordingly.The law, sponsored by state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, is meant to treat pets less like property and more like family.

“It has feelings and emotions,” Holmes said. “They’re looking at what would be in the best interest of the animal.”

Holmes, who served as Brookfield Zoo docent and volunteers with the Naperville Humane Society, said both sides would make their its as to why they would be the best to keep the pet. The judge would, in theory, be able to grant joint custody of the pup.

The law would not apply to service animals. Divorce attorney and animal rights advocate Erika Wyatt, partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck, said it will now matter who does the dirty work of caring for a pet.

“Who does the day-to-day stuff? Who buys the pet food? Who stays on top of vaccinations?” she said. “Anything that happens in the normal care for the pet is going to become relevant now.”

Animal custody was becoming more common in a courtroom battle up until the last couple years. A study by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers showed that a third of their lawyers said couples divorced in the last three years were more likely to settle pet custody disputes outside of the courtroom.

Dogs, they said, remain the top animal causing these disputes with 96 percent of the respondents. Cats and horses come in a distant second with 1 percent each. Alaska was the first to change its divorce laws to give pets a higher status in divorce proceedings.

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