Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A Maryland court has ordered a divorcing couple to share joint custody of their Lhasa Apso:
As they headed toward divorce, Gayle and Craig Myers had only one bone of contention: Who would have the right to keep Lucky, their 16-pound gray-black Lhasa apso.
Under Maryland law, family pets — unlike, say, children — are treated as jointly owned marital property and sold if the divorcing couple cannot agree on who gets to keep them. The parties then split the proceeds of the sale.
But the standard resolution did not seem right to retired Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Graydon S. McKee III.
The judge, presiding over the limited-divorce proceeding by special assignment, decided on his own last month that Gayle and Craig, who have no children, would split custody of Lucky. The dog will alternate spending six months with each party; Gayle’s turn began on July 1.
Animal-law attorney Jan Berlage said McKee recognized that dogs and other pets are “family members” and not mere property.
“The judge seems to be taking into account that the common law is changing,” said Berlage, who chairs the Maryland State Bar Association’s Animal Law Section. “Pets have a different role in our lives than farm animals that are fungible and can be replaced.”
“This judge understood the role of pets, and particularly dogs, in the fabric of the American family,” said attorney James S. Maxwell. “The judge appropriately elevated the status of a dog to a member of a family.”
But Maxwell added that only a similar ruling by Maryland’s top court or a change in Maryland law will ensure that McKee’s decision to treat dogs as more than marital property takes root in Maryland.
Carmean voiced doubt that the judge’s order marks the start of a trend toward pet-custody rulings.
“We have a court system that deals with a lot of child-custody cases,” said Carmean, of Lamson, LeBlanc & Carmean LLC in Prince Frederick.
Treating pets in a similar fashion “would take up a lot of judicial time and energy,” he added. “I will leave it to family-law scholars to determine if you can have a visitation schedule for an animal.”
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