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Divorcing Couple to Share Custody . . . of Dog

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Zara (not Lucky) by Victor Bonomi on Flickr

Zara (not Lucky) by Victor Bonomi on Flickr

As we’ve discussed regarding pet trusts and the fate of a pet upon his owner’s death, pets are considered property by the law. Except, apparently, by retired Prince George County (Maryland) Circuit Judge Graydon S. McKee II.

On special assignment, Judge McKee presided over the divorce of Gayle and Craig Myers, caretakers of Lucky the Lhasa apso. The Myers have no children, and the only issue they couldn’t resolve was with whom Lucky would reside. In a decision with no apparent legal precedent, Judge McKee granted shared custody of the dog — each party will spend six months with Lucky.

In Maryland, as in many states, animals are considered property. In the case of divorce, if the couple can’t agree on how to divide such property, the animal is sold and the proceeds are split. Judge McKee didn’t like that potential result, though, so he decided to give the parties each half a year with the dog because, he found, they loved the dog equally.

“I really applied good old common sense that my grandmother taught me when I was a little kid,” Judge McKee said in the Maryland Daily Record.

Future of Pets in the Law

What does Lucky’s case mean for pets in the law? In future divorce cases in particular?

Well, nothing really, not even in Maryland.

“Until we have an appellate ruling or legislative change, it’s just one judge’s opinion, one judge’s attempt to do the right thing,” said James S. Maxwell of Maxwell & Barke LLC in Rockville, also in the Maryland Daily Record.

But that doesn’t mean change isn’t on its way.

Indeed, in recent years, there have been significant pet-related legal developments that reflect the important roles animals play in many Americans lives. Bloomberg BusinessWeek has reported that 63% of American homes have pets, and caretakers spend about $41 billion a year on their furry and feathered friends.

In estate law, for example, an animal’s caretaker cannot directly leave money or other items to a pet, but pet trusts have become a kind of workaround to this issue. Through a pet trust, an owner can leave a sum of money for the care of the pet after the owner’s death and also designate a new caretaker. In criminal law, although an animal hasn’t yet reached the status of a person when crimes are committed against it, animal cruelty is now a felony in 46 states according to the American Humane Association.

On the other hand, states have been reluctant to compensate pet owners for crimes committed against their animals via damages awards in negligence cases. Last year, the Vermont Supreme Court explicitly denied noneconomic damages (that is, pain and suffering as opposed to reimbursement of medical bills) to pet owners when their when their cats allegedly died from treatment given by veterinarians.

Still, this is an ever-changing area of law, so who knows what the next animal-related court case will bring? What do you think about these changes in animal law? Do you think Judge McKee made the right decision?

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July 13th, 2010 at 10:28 am

Posted in Divorce,Legal News

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