Horse Trusts

liability release boarding contract horse lawHow do you feel when see one of those posts on social media about horses whose owner has died or been incapacitated, that are headed for a kill pen if funds can’t be raised to care for them? Do you think it’s tragic and will never happen to you and your horse? Or does the whole thing disturb you to the point where you lie awake at 3 am, wondering what will happen to your horse if something unexpected happens to you? Unfortunately, this kind of thing can happen to almost anyone. Luckily, there is a legal vehicle that allows you to plan for your horse’s future in the event you are incapacitated or die. That document is called a pet trust, and you can have one for every animal in your family, not just your horse. As of January 2017, every state and the District of Columbia had some form of legislation that allows pet trusts.

Under the law, horses are considered property. This means someone literally cannot legally step in and take care of your horse if anything happens to you because they do not own your horse. For example, if you are in a coma and your riding buddy decides to move your horse to a less expensive boarding barn during that time so she can take over board payments for you, she could be charged with theft, no matter how good her intentions. But she could not access your checking account to make the regular monthly board payments she knows you would want to make, to keep your horse where it’s been. She would literally be helpless to intervene if the barn owner decided he had to file legal papers to seize your horse and then sell it to pay for unpaid boarding costs if several months went by while you were incapacitated and unable to take care of things. That’s how situations like the one in those tragic posts we see develop.

The way around this problem is to create a horse trust. The trust becomes active if you are incapacitated or when you die. If you are incapacitated, it is no longer active and returns control to you once you have capacity to handle matters concerning your horse.

A horse trust gives you the ability to provide funds for your horse’s care and to include specific instructions concerning that care. When you set up the trust, you set aside enough money in it to take care of your horse in the manner you prefer. How much money should you put into the trust? It depends on how long you want it to last. Write down a monthly budget that shows how much it costs to take care of your horse. Then decide how many months you want to provide care. For example, you may want to provide care for six months and then have a provision that if you have not regained capacity by then, you want your horse sold to someone or given to a specific person. If you want your horse taken care of after your death, you could put in enough money to care for him for several years. Make sure that the amount is reasonable, though. While horse trusts are generally not challenged in court, an argument could be made to reduce the amount you have left for care if one of your relatives or someone you left an inheritance to claim that it was excessive. Keep in mind that you can add money to the trust. So, start with what you can afford and add more if that works best for your budget.

A horse trust also allows you to name a trustee, which is the person who will take care of your horse if something happens to you. You can be as specific or general as you want concerning that care. You can leave it up to the trustee, or you can put in specific provisions you want the trustee to follow. For instance, you can include directions concerning where your horse is stabled, how she should be fed, and additional instructions about the farrier and vet visits. You can even stipulate specific things such as how you want your horse to be blanketed and special treats she should get fed. It’s always a good idea to talk to the person you want to name as trustee before you set up the trust, to make sure she can take on that responsibility and is comfortable following your directions for your horse’s care.

When you decide you’re ready to create a horse trust, contact an equine lawyer or animal lawyer in your state so you can be sure the state’s legal requirements for the trust are met. If you are a Massachusetts resident, please feel free to contact me to discuss one. Be sure to revisit the trust every year to make sure the funds you’ve set aside are still adequate and to make sure you don’t want to change any of the instructions for your horse’s care. Then enjoy the peace of mind of knowing your horse will never be the “star” of a social media plea for rescue from a trip to the kill pen. You can rest well knowing she’ll be taken care of if anything unexpected ever happens to you.



The Hazards of Preprinted Liability Releases

hay bale mustang horseAs a horse professional, you try to save money wherever you can. As a former horse trainer and clinician, I understand your concern with the bottom dollar. I also remember all the tales I used to hear from clients about the “cheap” hay they had found. They would always tell me they’d gotten a great deal. When the concern would appear on my face, they would tell me — before I could say a word — that they knew the hay was going to be just great. It never failed that after they got the hay, sometimes right away and sometimes after the passage of time, the person would complain that the hay wasn’t as good as they thought it was or even had serious mold in it. The person invariably had to either buy new hay or supplement the hay with grain, and they never got any kind of refund. I guess the take-away is that you get what you pay for.

The same is true with the legal documents that you use in your horse business. I know it is sorely tempting to get inexpensive legal documents off the Internet for your horse business, but doing so could literally cost you that business in the end. Let’s take one of the most popular documents for any horse business, the liability release. Where did you get your current liability release? Did you make it up on your own? Did you buy a preprinted form online from an online legal website? Did you download one from another facility that had one online? If you did any of these things, your liability release may not be worth the paper it’s printed on. And that means it isn’t providing you any protection from a lawsuit.

ride equine liability release lawAs you probably already know, many laws concerning liability are controlled by state rather than federal statutes. That means that something that is legal in one state may not be legal in another. The problem with downloading a preprinted liability release form from a website, even if it is supposedly written by an attorney, is that the form you download may not be valid in Massachusetts. For example, under Massachusetts law, a very specifically-worded warning must appear in your release. That language isn’t included in a preprinted liability release that anyone from any state can download. And yes, I am telling you that I have looked at the forms commonly available for download online and that language is not there. What this means for your business is that such a form is not legally binding here in Massachusetts if someone sues you for injuries and you have to go to court. You will think you’re protected but you really won’t be.

Another problem with online legal forms you can download is that state laws change constantly. An attorney focuses on the law of her own jurisdiction. She doesn’t have the time to constantly look for changes in the laws of all 49 other states so she can update her online release form to make sure it’s valid outside the state where she practices. Again, you leave yourself open to liability if you rely on a liability release drafted by an attorney who is not licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, whose business is keeping abreast of all the changes and updating forms accordingly.

You can even have problems if the forms themselves are valid, simply because you don’t know how to fill it out properly. I know of a case where a barn that downloaded a liability release from the Internet and got sued wound up in big trouble. The release they’d used did them no good because they had neglected to put their barn’s name in the spaces left blank for that purpose. They simply didn’t know how to fill out the form properly and never had a local attorney check it over. In the end, they lost a lot because of trying to save money in the wrong place.

consultations questions equine law horses law joanne belascoAs an attorney, I am trained to pay attention to details. While this can be frustrating for some life activities – making sure every piece of leather is tucked into its keeper even though I’m just going on a short hack and no one will see me or my horse, for instance – it is essential when doing legal work. I know what language legally has to be there for your liability release to hold up in court. As a Massachusetts attorney, it’s my job to pay attention to ways the law changes that impact you and the liability release you use. And as an equine attorney, I know what things might be important in a liability release for your specific business that might not be important for someone else’s. Think of it this way: a liability release is meant to protect you from being sued successfully. If it can’t do that because it doesn’t meet Massachusetts state law or isn’t filled out properly, then what’s the point of having it? It’s just a worthless piece of paper.

So, while you may cringe at having to pay an attorney to have your documents drafted, it’s well worth doing so. And it’s still not all that expensive. Just putting off getting that bling bridle for one more month can provide you with the right documents to protect you and your business.

Contact me today to learn how I can help you make sure you have a valid Massachusetts liability release.



What is equine law?

equine law horses law joanne belascoWhen I tell people I am an equine attorney, a lot of people think I represent horses in legal actions.  That’s not quite how it works, although I hope that horses benefit from the work I do with humans.  An explanation of equine law might help explain the wide breadth of this area of law and what I can do for you.

Equine law focuses more on the community it serves rather than a specific area of law.  As an equine attorney, I work with people who have horses in their lives.  My clients can run the gamut from a person who has a horse in the backyard as a companion animal to someone who competes at the national level. I also work with individuals and companies, both for profit and non-profit, who are involved in the horse industry.  These people have different legal needs depending on their role in the horse world.  Some of the people who require equine legal services include horse trainers, riding instructors, boarding barn owners, clinicians, breeders, horse sellers, horse purchasers, equine vets, horse chiropractors, and horse massage therapists.

In order to meet the various needs of the horse community, equine law encompasses several areas of law.  Business law applies to many horse-related activities, especially when dealing with contracts.  The horse industry has historically conducted business “on a handshake,” but that leads to many problems.  Contracts are a way for all parties involved to make sure everyone has the same understanding concerning the transaction.  Some of the contracts necessary to the horse community are boarding contracts, sales contracts, breeding contracts, and liability releases.  Business law also applies if a person wants to create a company or a nonprofit.  Many horse people are great with horses, but not with the business side of being a horse professional.  Hiring an equine attorney allows you to feel confident that you have picked the right business structure and that your business has been set up properly.

horse law business law contracts real estate salesEstate planning is an important legal area to include when thinking about equine law.  In Massachusetts, an individual can have a horse trust, which ensures that a horse or horses are taken care of if the owner is incapacitated or dies.  You may think your will is all you need in those situations, but a will has no effect if you are incapacitated, and it must go through probate before it can take effect when you die.  Money and other assets are not available until the will is probated, which can take several months or even years. A horse trust gives you peace of mind that your horse is taken care of as soon as you are incapacitated or during the time your will is probated.

Other legal practice areas include real estate law, which can come into play when a horse person wishes to buy horse property, whether for personal or professional purposes.  Equine law also can also include legal matters concerning equine insurance.  Finally, litigation, which many people want to avoid, may be an option of last resort if a contract is violated or harm is done to a horse or person.

There are only about 100 attorneys in the country who practice equine law.  To be a good equine attorney, the person should obviously be a good attorney but she should also have a solid working understanding of the horse industry.  The more experience an equine attorney has around horses, the better she will be able understand the many scenarios that can happen and she will be able to craft solutions to avoid problems or to handle them if they arise.

horse law joanne belasco equine attorneyI practice preventive equine law, which means that I work with clients to avoid problems that may lead to litigation.  When you talk to me about your legal concerns, I understand your problems because of my experience as a horse professional and personal horsewoman.  An attorney without knowledge of horses and the horse industry is not able to understand basic terms and broader situations that we, as horse people, do.   You don’t have to spend time explaining basic concepts to me, such as your horse colicking, because I know the term and have gone through the experience myself with my horses.

Contact me today, and we’ll set up a time to see how I can help with your equine legal needs.