Horse Trusts

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Recently, I have seen posts on Facebook horse groups that ask if people have plans for the care of their horse if they are incapacitated or die. Many people say they have talked to a friend or they have written some informal agreement. Unfortunately, neither or those options are ones that will hold up if the person decides not to take care of the horse.  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 an animal trust, and you can have one for every animal in your family, not just your horse. Currently, every state and the District of Columbia had some form of legislation that allows for animal trusts. While an animal trust is a stand-alone document so it doesn’t need to be included in your estate plan, it is a good idea to let your estate planning attorney know that you have or want one.

Horses as Property Under the Law

Under the current law in every state, 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. She also 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 currently boarded. 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. We all would hope that a boarding barn owner would understand but sometimes finances take first priority, especially when it’s a business that relies on that income.

Horse Trusts

The way around this problem is to create a horse trust. The trust becomes active if you are incapacitated or when you die. Once you are no longer incapacitated, it is no longer active and returns control to you to handle matters concerning your horse.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 the amount to care for your horse 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. Depending on your state, there may be other people included in the trust, such as a vet who makes sure the horse is being taken care of properly.

When you decide you’re ready to create a horse trust, contact an equine 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. If you don’t live in Massachusetts, I may be able to refer to an attorney in your jurisdiction. 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 knowing your horse will be taken care of if anything unexpected ever happens to you.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

The Hazards of Preprinted Liability Releases

As 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.

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.

State Liability Laws

As 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 your state. 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 the required language is not there. I have even found a liability release for download online used by a very popular clinician that is not valid in Massachusetts because it does not contain the required statutory language. What this means for your equine business is that this kind of form is not legally binding here in Massachusetts if someone sues you for injuries and you have to go to court. You may think you are protected but you aren’t.

Changing State Laws

Another problem with online legal forms you can download is that state laws change. 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. Doing so may even run afoul of the law concerning the unauthorized practice of law in a jurisdiction where she is not licensed to practice. You leave yourself open to liability if you rely on a release drafted by an attorney who is not licensed to practice law in your state and whose business is keeping abreast of all the changes and updating forms accordingly.

Completed Incorrectly

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 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.

As 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 ride 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 the ways Massachusetts law may change and how that change impacts 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. I love bling bridles and other fun things we buy for ourselves and our horses. But putting off getting that bling bridle for a month or two 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.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

The horse industry is big business

Graphic courtesy of the University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program. Used with Permission and Credited.
You may have heard the joke about “How do you make a small fortune with a horse business?”  Answer: You start with a large one! For years now, I have heard people say you can’t make a living working with horses. When we say something repeatedly, we tend to start to believe it. But what if the story of not being able to make a living with horses is actually false? What if you can make a living?

Recently, the University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program shared the graphic to the left on its Facebook page. Contrary to what you may have heard, the horse industry is booming. And it’s doing so because of equine business owners. Think of how many businesses it takes to maintain horses. A short list includes vets, farriers, feed stores, hay producers, tack stores, equine dentists, equine chiropractors, equine massage therapists, horse trainers, riding instructors, clinicians, horse breeders, horse associations, and horse rescuers.

One of the keys to being successful as an equine entrepreneur is to realize that while you love working in the horse world, it is a business. That means it has to be run as one. You have to start with a business plan and the correct business formation. You need legal contracts drafted by an equine attorney. You need to protect your company with a trademark. You need a marketing plan. You may need liability insurance. You may need documents specific to your equine business, such as barn rules. If you have all of these things in place as you start your business, it is easier to assess where and how you need to make changes if something isn’t working right or if you want to expand your business.

If you feel passionate about horses, contact me so we can discuss how I can help you start, build, or rebrand your equine business with my equine legal and business consulting services.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

A Safe Home for Your Horse

equine estate planning liability releases equine contracts equine businessHow do you find a home for a horse that you are retiring if you can’t keep that horse with you? It’s a situation that can turn bad quickly as evidenced by a recent news story.  A tragic story coming out of Georgia concerns horses and the possibility they were sent to slaughter instead of having comfortable retirement homes. A jury indicted Fallon Blackwood, a third-year veterinary student at Tuskegee College of Veterinary Medicine, in October of 2018, with “13 counts of bringing into the state property obtained by false pretense elsewhere.” The Blount County, Alabama sheriff’s office arrested her this past weekend at a rodeo. The allegations against her arise from complaints filed by individuals who gave Ms. Blackwood their horses based on her promise that they would live their lives on a farm Ms. Blackwood owns. Ms. Blackwood, however, could not tell the former owners where the horses were when they inquired about them, and according to District Attorney Pamela Casey, the horses are believed to be dead. Because the DA did not want to discuss facts of the case, she would not go so far as to say whether she believed Ms. Blackwood sent them to Mexico for slaughter. The former owners believe that is exactly what happened. Ms. Blackwood posted bail while the case is pending trial, and according to students at Tuskegee, was back on campus for classes leading to her graduation in May.

The allegations, if proven true at trial, are a horrible example of what can happen to a horse that is given away without any legal protections put into place. The best way to protect your horse is to provide her with a lifelong home. Realistically, that is not always possible. Here are five things you can do if you are in the situation of giving your horse away to someone:

  1. Use a contract, not a handshake. I know that in the horse world, we like to think that everyone loves horses and is honest with us about them. But the horse world is comprised of imperfect humans, just like the rest of society. A contract drafted by an equine attorney sets out the expectations of both parties and protects them if something goes wrong. It also protects the horse because you can make sure your horse is getting the care you expect.
  2. Get updates. You should make sure that you get constant updates from the person who is giving your horse a home. These updates should be included in the contract, and you must make sure you enforce them. Details such as how often you get the updates, how you get them (for example, pictures sent via email, or updates posted to a Facebook page), and what happens if you don’t receive the updates should all be stated in your contract.
  3. Don’t accept excuses. I know that most of the people reading this article are women because we make up the majority of the horse world. We are told to be nice, not offend others, and certainly not think the worse of someone. But if you aren’t getting the updates stated in your contract, don’t accept excuses. Go and see your horse or contact someone you know in the area to go see the horse. Again, this is another detail to put into your contract. Any horse person will understand that you want these protections because we have all read the horror stories like the one concerning the allegations against Ms. Blackwood.
  4. Visit the facility and get references – and check them out! You can make sure that the person is representing herself honestly by going to see the facility and getting references. Ideally, you want to see the facility at a time when you are not expected. Doing so is not a problem with a public facility because you can simply show up. Private property is a bit trickier because you obviously can’t trespass on private property. In that case, you may need to drive by at an unexpected time, depending on how much of the facility is visible from a public road. This situation leads to the importance of getting references and then following through and contacting them. Don’t just get friends. Get a list of other people who have horses there or have had them there in the past. Get the vet, farrier, and other equine-service provider to provide you with references. With the Internet at your fingertips, do a Google search and look at social media pages. While it’s true that anyone can leave a bad review, and sometimes people malign others because they simply don’t like them, doing a thorough search and speaking to people may lead you to more information that allows you to feel comfortable about the person or raises red flags.
  5. Go with your gut. We have all heard stories of someone saying, “Well, I had a bad feeling about it, but I didn’t listen to my gut, and I should have.” If you are discussing the possibility of your horse going to someone, and it just doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it. You can find another situation for your horse. Some people tell me that they don’t want to offend someone by turning them down. All you need to do is say that the situation isn’t right for your horse. You don’t owe them a further explanation. Think of your horse first.

I will update my blog when the case concerning Ms. Blackwood is decided. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me if you want to talk more about how you can protect your horse when you look for her retirement home.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation.