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July 30th, 2010
07:30 AM ET

Gut Check: Should pets be considered like a child in divorce court?

For Gayle Myers, her dog Lucky is just like her child. "I don't have any kids, so she is the closest thing that I am going to have to a child." She and her husband, Craig, had taken in Lucky, a Shih Tzu mix, as a stray. When their eight-year marriage ended in divorce, the couple managed to resolve all outstanding issues - except for who would get to keep Lucky. "I know that he cares about her and didn't want to give her up either. It's just - neither of us wanted to give her up,” Myers says. And because in Maryland, pets are considered property, like a house or a car, it was up to retired Maryland Circuit Judge Graydon S. McKee II to decide who would get the dog. He awarded the couple joint custody - the first time a decision on dog custody has been recorded in Maryland. Lucky will spend six months a year with each of his "parents." McKee says after listening to both sides, he thought it was the only fair thing to do. Watch Video


"I really didn't think the dog is like a couch," he explains. Disputes over pet custody have steadily increased, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. AAML President, Marlene Eskind Moses - a dog owner herself - worries pet disputes could strain the already backlogged court system. "Sharing time, sharing decision making, there's lots of issues, it really frankly would be no different than making decisions about children," she says. "Even to the point with deciding where the animal's going to be for the holidays and for the summertime." But, she adds: "We know psychologically how important pets are to people. And if you carried that out it would make sense that losing that attachment would be significant to a person when they're going through a divorce and they're losing their spouse. So the animal would take on even more significance potentially to that person."

What do you think: should pets be considered like a child in divorce court?


Filed under: Gut Check
soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Nanakitteh

    No, pets should not be treated like children in a divorce if that means moving them back and forth between homes and people. They should be allowed to stay at one home. Maybe the other person can get visiting rights, but the animal/s should not be moved constantly.

    August 11, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
  2. DogLover

    We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It's the best deal man has ever made.

    August 10, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  3. DownToOne

    Having just gone thru a divorce where dog custody was a major issue, I can easily understand why they should be treated like children, not furniture. My ex locked me out of the house and told me that she never wanted me to see the dogs again. A very brief hearing in court awarded us each one dog, something that should have been achievable w/o spending thousands of dollars in legal fees. It was clear that the judge was disgusted that we had to go to court to resolve something so petty (pun intended).

    Having an even number of dogs makes it much easier to divide them up, but it's still not a pleasant process. If we had only one dog, it would have been a tough choice to decide who gets the front half and who gets the back, but I know how I'd cast my vote.

    August 10, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  4. raven

    yes absolutely because it is a known fact that people become more attached to pets than even people and it's the same circumstance for the pet as well.

    August 5, 2010 at 9:57 am |
  5. Jim

    They should be considered more than a couch for civil lawsuits as well.

    It's amazing to me that if someone kills your pet like the police raiding the wrong house or something and they shoot your dog for protecting the property all the compensation you can get is the dollar value of the dog.

    Phyllis G Williams: It also amazes me that the religious types have such a disregard for animals as well. Animals are living creatures that have souls yet most religious folks no problem eating them every day. what part of "thou shalt not kill" didn't you understand? Christian religions are hypocritical, they should make being a vegetarian a requirement.

    August 2, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  6. Jeri

    Our dogs keep us busy and laughing. They comfort us and give us joy.Life would be very empty without them.

    July 30, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  7. Belkis Ruiz

    The dog is the only animal that has lived with man since the times of the caverns. Dogs should be considered a member of the family.

    Belkis Ruiz

    July 30, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  8. Jan

    Absolutely they are members of the family!! They are so much more than living room decor or an accessory that the fashionistas carry with them to the salons. They are our children. And especially for those who cannot have human children, they are the loves of our lives.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  9. mary lenkewicz

    If there are belongings involved in a divorce, each parties lawyers come to an agreement w/ the people, then bring it into the judge to say who gets what. Then there is a custody battle over children later.
    If you do not have a faithful/ protective pet, you will not understand the lengths people will go to save their lives. Usually they have one owner which they really love, and who loves them as a member of their family, and if you have children, the pet is not just a one person pet, plus he is a protector(whether cat or dog). So if the other party wants to fight you that bad, then yes yes yes, take it to court. If you cared for that pet enough, then you should have vet records of everything, then people will see you belong in court to fight for this pet. not only do pets have feelings, but their owners certainly do also, just like that vase from your aunt martha, it has centimental value to you, the other one just wants to be a jerk, so take him to court. just like 2 neighbors that fight over who popped your child's ball, and then dumb enough, end up before the judge, now that is assinine, but a pet is not just any ole animal. a cat or dog becomes your comfort, protector, and loyal friend. people fight over cars....it don't have feelings.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  10. Phyllis G Williams

    God says we are to love pets, but kissing cats and dogs is an abomination to God-(Ezekiel 8: 10) and personally I see those people as ‘nasty’ and could not knowingly eat from them
    . The judge’s decision was perfect (half-a-year for each) and we must worship the living God and not the creatures He made.
    Dogs should be considered as animal property in a Divorce Court,
    not a child, as they are two different species (1st Corinthians 15: 39).

    July 30, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  11. Jean

    A dog chooses to whom it belongs. It doesn't matter who feeds it or takes it for a walk. They just develop an attachment to a certian family member, and that is where they belong. Anyone who tries to make that decision for the dog does not really care for a dog. I got a dog for myself, I fed it and took it out for walks, but it was my husband the dog fell in love with. That attachment was so strong that when my husband got ill , the dog had to go on tranquilizers.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:37 am |
  12. Joe

    It really depends on how selfish people are being. My girlfriend has a "chi" and she is the one stable thing she's had in her life before me. The dog has unconditional love (or whatever the experts call it with a dog) for my girlfriend. The dog depends on her. The dog knows her. The dog knows when my girlfriend is stressed, upset, etc. and acts appropriately providing comfort and affection to my girlfriend to comfort her. The dog is not just a part of her life; she IS her life.

    Dogs, throughout time, just like cats, have been PROVEN to be soothing entities in people's life. They are used in retirement homes, shelters, etc. Even for me, my dog has been there when I have felt down and I can always count on her to be there no matter how I feel.

    I didn't understand that when I first started dating my girlfriend but I do now. Obviously there is a line, but every pet owner will draw it differently. These two people don't like each other. They both love the pet. They're going to battle over it... How the court handles it... well, we'll see! ~ just my random thoughts...

    July 30, 2010 at 8:34 am |
  13. Joanna O'Rourke

    Yes, I believe that dogs should be considered as a child in a divorce settlement case. No one, including my great husband, four loving children or seven wonderful grandchildren, are as happy to be with me as our dogs. Our dogs are not our property, they are living, breathing, and very loving immidiate members of our family!

    July 30, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  14. Javier

    The question here is not how the judge decides, but on whether the dog is treated as property of as a family member, such as a child. Focus.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  15. Javier

    Yes, pets should be considered as part of the family, and regardless of what the judge decides, they should not be treated as property that can be sold to divide the proceeds, at least as long as one of the family members feels an emotional attachment to the creature. We need to evolve and understand that as long as we see pets as property, many are treated as disposable, abandoned, and taken lightly. We face a great dog overpopulation in many areas in the country and as long as people don't realize the seriousness and responsibility of owning a dog, things won't change. Would you sell your child and split the proceeds? The fact that dogs don't speak does not mean they don't suffer.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:30 am |
  16. S.H. Tallent

    Opposition sites back log of court cases and added complication to divorce proceedings. However, in my never humber opinion (imnho), it is the system that is broken, not the parties involved; at lest not pertaining to issue of law itself. I disagree with the 6 month split. Pets are just like children to people, especially those without children. Dogs have a limited memory and become depressed and can be to the point of trauma when their loved ones disappear. Six months is not a viable option. Shared or joint custody should follow visitation guidelines for children. Before I had children, I remember how I felt about my pet. Since having children, the pets are not on par with my emotional bond with my children. That being said, the feeling I felt for my pet years ago, is the same as I now have for my children. I also have two dogs that have been through so much with me and the girls, that they are a part of us. We consider their well-being as we do our own. Humanity does not end with the human race. Just as the environment is integral to humanity so are those we share the planet with.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:28 am |
  17. Pauly

    If only these 2 would have realized that a dog's love is unconditional & forever. They could have saved a lot of money, headaches, etc by getting a dog rather than a human partner!!! A dog will stick w/ you through thick & thin. Spouses only promise to do so.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  18. Dean

    My ex and I were together for 6 years. Five of those years we had two dogs. When we broke up neither of us could imagine giving up those dogs nor would we ask that of the other. For the past FOUR years, we have successfully been able to share custody of the dogs. We still live in the same city, so we are able to exchange them regularly each week just like parents would in those situations. It's been tough at times, but pets are supposed to be a commitment. If adults acted like adults, this wouldn't be an issue. Maybe they should learn something from their pets...

    July 30, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  19. Nichola

    I actually can't believe this is STILL an issue...of course A PET IS PART OF THE FAMILY!!! It seems like the courts (LAWYERS) are whining about more work for themselves??? GEE POOR BABIES!!

    July 30, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  20. Christine

    My former husband and I had joint custody written into our divorce degree. We switch custody every Tuesday, take turns with monthly medications and annual vet checks. It was also written that any major vet bills and decisions regarding his health will be joint decisions and we would split the bills.
    This has worked out well for us, and we both still get to enjoy the dog we raised together.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:24 am |
  21. batch362

    I'm surprised that pets are not already given such a status. If her ex were any sort of a gentleman he would allow her to keep the dog.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  22. Tyler Starke

    Of course. Dogs are intelligent creatures that feel emotions. They have an understanding of their surroundings and can act to change their surroundings. Unlike furniture, or even plants, animals are both proactive and reactive. You can cut your grass, but it wont weep.

    What I am saying is ... dogs are creatures that require humane treatment.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  23. Kathryn

    How cruel to the dog? Separating from the owner every 6 months would appear a little overwhelming for the pooch. I am an army officer wife and I know it takes a solid two weeks for our dog Charlie to become adjusted from a move. He sometimes will not eat and becomes very lethargic. I hope they let the dust settle with their divorce and realize that they could manage an easier custody decision, similar to a child. Dogs are pets not children, but they are so much more then a "piece of property." Thanks!

    July 30, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  24. Ric Sandler

    Amen, Chris Green

    July 30, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  25. Ric Sandler

    For what it's worth, I was in a similar position in my divorce. My wife suggested we split custody and the mediators wisely chose that the dog stay with one owner, who ended up me. Either way, dogs are not humans-
    I say this in a good way. One stable home is best. But I do believe people are more motivated by self-interest, not the dog's.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  26. Jack, Long Island, NY

    Should've changed the name of the dog for the story: "He gets Lucky for six months"!
    Dogs should not be treated as if they were furniture, but court time should not be used for this, either. Couple comes up with their own plan or dog goes to a new home.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  27. Anonymous

    Pauly, that is exactly my feelings and what happened with me.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:17 am |
  28. Andy

    First count the legs. Humans have 2, dogs have 4.

    Focus your life on 2-legged creations. Give to people in need; love your husband and stop treating your dog like something it isn't and wasn't ever intended to be – a human being.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:17 am |
  29. Pauly

    You can take the money, the house, the car, etc but leave your paws off my dog!!!

    July 30, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  30. Chris Green

    While I understand the emotional ties people make with their beloved pets, the pet must be put first. Trading the dog back & forth will not only confuse it, but put it through withdrawl every 6 months from the previous 'custody' holder. Owners must make the tough decision of one permanent home where the dog/pet needs to be FOR THE DOG'S SAKE and no one else's! I fear this pet will feel it did something wrong every 6 months when custody changes hand...and most-importantly....that is cruel and in my humble opinion 'animal abuse'!
    sorry for the multiple posts...my anger over this issue has my fingers moving faster than my mind can think (typos) . Thank you for reporting this. CNN RULES!

    July 30, 2010 at 8:11 am |
  31. Jenifer

    Absolutely, pets should be considered part of the family. They provide unconditional love and companionship for those around them and in many cases a reason to live for people in their declining years and health. Pets allow us the opportunity to teach children to respect and care for another living being. To deny a person contact with their pet is tantamount to a cruel and inhumane action. Thank you. Jennie

    July 30, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  32. Stefanie Neff

    Carol~

    My husband and I love our dog. We don’t have kids, so our dog is our child, but if we ever got divorced it would be heart breaking for both of us, because we love our baby, so I could see why going to court would be important, because we both have a significant attachment to the dog. I think we would both want equal time with the dog, but my husband works in the home I work outside of the home, so it would be a little more complicated.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:05 am |
  33. Avia

    I know some people love their dogs and treat them like they are their children. This will however open the door to all pets and people will be fighting over the goldfish.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:02 am |
  34. Wonka

    Yes, the principle in the ruling is great. I have anguished over the same issue (in Massachusetts) with my dog following divorce, and pets as "social" beings should not be treated like property in these (or any) circumstances.

    I am however surprised by the logic with the 6-month split, as I cannot fathom being away for that long. How about a 2-week/2-week split?

    Still, the ruling is an exciting and interesting prospect in future pet custody rulings (at least in MD).

    Can anyone post the findings of fact and rationale, and the full judgment?

    July 30, 2010 at 8:00 am |
  35. Joycelyn146

    Seriously, I would fight to keep my dogs if I were ever in a divorce situation. My animals bring joy & love to my life everyday, could not imagine being without them.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  36. Chris Green

    While I understand the emotional ties people make with their beloved pets, the pet must be put first. Trading the dog back & forth will not only confuse it, but put it through withdrawl every 6 months from the previous 'custody' holder. Owners must make the tough decision of where the dog/pet needs to be FOR THE DOG'S SAKE and no one else's!

    July 30, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  37. Terry - Washington State

    YD – Could it be that animals treat us better than many humans?

    July 30, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  38. John Hudson

    I went through a divorce and she broke into the cottage I was staying at and took the two dogs on Christmas Night! Then my ex had the gall to give them away!,. It tore me up. After all the crap you go through it was one of the major aspects of the relationship you really miss.
    We went through so much drama with her kids, the dogs were the best thing about the relationship in the end.
    I applaud the decision of the judge and wish I had received the same judgment. I always said I would go back to court if I could and get them back even on a part time basis. I just need to find them now could I post their pictures?

    July 30, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  39. Anonymous

    Animals are a huge part of a family and should not be considered "property" in a divorce like they are, but rather they most certainly should be considered family members. I just went through a divorce, and I own three dogs. I have to say that they were, without question, the deciding factor throughout the entire process and ultimately and unfortunately led me to lose a lot of money in exchange for custody. My ex choose to use them as a bargaining chip, and he knew that I had a very large emotional attachment to them. It's sad that it had to come to that, and it never should have. Now although I have them, and am so glad I do because I would never want to be without them, I struggle financially now that I am on my own. I wouldn't want anyone else to have to go through the emotional and financial issues I had to.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  40. Terry - Washington State

    Sure, mine are part of the family; so, I would be upset if there was a split and wouldn't see my dogs.

    I don't equate them to people. Although I love my dog and I don't love all people.

    People question my attachment to my pets. Well, all I can say is love is love. You can't discount the affection people have for their animal friends.

    They live with us day in and out, they're company for many that are disabled. I can't imagine life without my dogs. Losing some over the years has been enormously difficult and takes time to get through.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  41. evans makori

    sounds great, we have seen stories where the dog helps the owner in some emergency cases,which means that the attachment is so great, then let's be fair in our final decision before tramatizing the pet for six month and change of environment for the next six months. or allow each family tokeep two pets

    July 30, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  42. Rebecca, Glendale, AZ

    the biggest problem with the court deciding "custody" of a pet is they don't really know who the pet wants to be with. Most pets are actually attached to one person more. My ex wanted my cat, but she made it clear she did not want him and would not go to him when he called. If a court gave her to him, she would have run away to find me. Animals are very loyal and would really suffer if given to the wrong master or even shared.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  43. Gail

    Yes I do believe that dogs should be considered like a child in divorce court. My husband and I were never blessed with 2 legged children but we have always loved and treated our dogs as children. They mean so much to both of us. Tucker is our child. We have always treated him like he is a child.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:55 am |
  44. Pauly

    What's next, doggie support?

    July 30, 2010 at 7:52 am |
  45. YD

    It is amazing to me that people will treat pets better than they treat humans. Interested to see how this works out!

    July 30, 2010 at 7:51 am |