Litigating Pet Possession in Maryland: Lessons from a Frederick County Divorce

Most dog owners consider their dogs family members, not mere property like appliances, furniture, or cars. However, in Maryland, that is how the courts will address pets in a divorce case. To get an outcome that will enhance your pet’s best interests, you must understand how Maryland law sees pets and how to use the existing rules to get the result you desire. Part of that process of protecting your pets is retaining the services of a knowledgeable Maryland divorce lawyer.

Last August, we covered a change to D.C. law in which that jurisdiction declared that judges may consider the “best interests of a pet” in determining who gets an animal in a divorce. The amended law also gave judges in D.C. the option to award joint custody of a pet in a divorce judgment.

Here in Maryland, the law is substantially different. As noted above, Maryland law says that pets are personal property. That distinction means that, if you desire to get possession of your pet (or pets) in a Maryland divorce, you have to litigate the case very differently than you might in D.C. Those distinctions were on clear display in a recent divorce case from Frederick County.

The spouses owned two dogs when the case went to trial in the spring of 2022. Whereas a spouse in D.C. might present testimony about who spent the most time bonding with the animals, the wife in the Frederick County case sought to demonstrate that the dogs were purchased using the non-marital funds that she individually received as an inheritance, making the animals her non-marital property… in much the same way one might seek to prove separate ownership of a home or car in a divorce hearing. The husband countered by asserting that the dogs were “family use” personal property items subject to division in the divorce.

The court ultimately gave one dog to each spouse, and the wife appealed.

Pets as ‘Family Use’ Property

Maryland law has a specific statute that deals with “family use personal property.” Section 8-201(d) of the Family Law says that “family use personal property” includes:

  1. motor vehicles;
  2. furniture;
  3. furnishings; and
  4. household appliances,

and specifically excludes property “acquired by inheritance or gift from a third party.”

If an item qualifies as family use personal property, Section 8-205 gives the court the power to transfer ownership of family use property from one spouse to another.

The court looked at the facts and the proof the spouses presented and decided that the dog in dispute was family use property. The “whole family testified to contributing to” the dog’s welfare, including the wife who trained the animals and the husband who served as their primary caretakers. Additionally, the wife lacked clear evidence indicating that the money used to buy the dogs came from her inherited funds. In the absence of that proof, the trial court was within its proper discretion to award one of the two dogs to the husband.

While it might be distasteful to hear your beloved beagle Bernie lumped in with the recliner, the refrigerator, and the Range Rover, that is the state of the law as things stand now. To protect your interests (and the best interests of your four-legged family members,) you need an effective legal team advocating for you. Rely on the experienced Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to be that voice for you. Whether your divorce hinges upon homes, vehicles, or pets, we can help you navigate the system effectively. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

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