Dogs are property, the state’s top court says.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision Tuesday in a custody case involving an unmarried former couple and a Labrador retriever-boxer mix named Honey. A District Court judge granted sole custody of Honey to Kelvin M. Liriano, 25, of Old Town, because Liriano’s name was on the adoption papers. His ex-girlfriend, Jessica Sardina, 25, of Bangor, appealed that decision, effectively arguing that she had a stronger attachment to the dog.

The justices did not issue a written opinion but simply affirmed the decision of the lower court.

During oral arguments held earlier this month in Augusta, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley noted that earlier in the day the court had cases involving the death of an infant and a sexual assault.

“What happens with the dog when unmarried parties go their separate ways – is that really something we want judges in this state to spend their time on?” Saufley asked.

Sardina’s lawyer, Gene Sullivan of Bangor, had argued that a pet should not be considered the same as property and that the courts have the authority to consider all factors when determining a pet custody case. Sardina told a reporter at the Augusta courthouse that she was the sole caregiver for Honey and considers the dog to be family.

It took the justices two weeks to reach a decision.

“Yes, the court process has reached its conclusion, but the Legislature is the next logical step,” Sullivan said in an email Tuesday evening. “On one end of the spectrum, we have custody laws for children. On the other, we have property laws for property. In Maine, it is time to change where along this spectrum companion animals belong. I would argue closer to the middle, on the custody side.”

Sullivan said if that proposal resonates with the Legislature, his next step would be to seek legislation establishing a standard for handling pet custody cases.

Liriano’s attorney told the justices that he decided on his own to adopt the dog and the couple cared for Honey together. The attorney maintained the lower court’s decision was well-founded on established property law. Liriano and Honey did not appear in court for the arguments.

Pet custody disputes across the country have been on the rise since 2001.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, dogs fetched the top spot as the most disputed family animal with cats a distant second. About 22 percent of the attorneys who responded to the survey said courts are more frequently allowing pet custody cases to be heard.

Pets are considered property in all 50 states, and only three states – Alaska, Illinois and California – have specific laws that address pet custody when a marriage dissolves, said Marcia Kramer of the Chicago-based animal advocacy group National Anti-Vivisection Society. None has a statute dealing with pets when an unmarried couple breaks up.

Sardina wasn’t surprised by the ruling.

“I knew that it was an uphill battle,” she told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) following Tuesday’s court ruling. “I knew that things probably weren’t going to go in my favor.

“I had to try. (Honey) is that important to me.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story.

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