Equine Law Explained

When 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 and international levels. I 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, professional riders, 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. Because of my experience as a horse professional, I also provide consulting services for equine business owners.

Another very important area for equine business owners is trademark law. If you want to protect your brand, and by that I mean your business identification not your horse brand, then you should register your name, logo, slogan, or something similar that lets people recognize your business. Registering a trademark can be tricky because it’s not an automatic approval process. I provide a search and analysis for horse businesses as well as registration services. If you tried to get your mark, and the United State Patent and Trademark Office denied your registration, I also respond to Office Actions after discussing the issues with you to see if there is a chance we can get you your mark.

A lot of horse people are writing books and creating DVDs. In addition, equine photography is a growing field in the horse industry. These creative horse people need to protect their work with copyright registration. It’s true that you own the copyright as soon as you create a work. However, you can only enforce those rights in court if you have an approved registration of your work with the US Copyright Office.

Estate 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. In addition, Massachusetts has an estate tax unlike most other states. If you own horse property, you may hit the $1 million amount that triggers the tax. I have solutions for you to save you on estate taxes so that more money can go to your beneficiaries.

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.

Joanne L. Belasco, Esq.I 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.

Animal Trusts

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.

Animals as Property Under the Law

Under the current law in every state, animals are considered property. This means someone literally cannot legally step in and take care of your animal if anything happens to you because they do not own your animal. 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.

Animal Trusts

The way around this problem is to create an animal 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 animal.

An animal trust gives you the ability to provide funds for your animal’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 animal. 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 animal sold to someone or given to a specific person. If you want your animal 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 animal 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 animal 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.

An animal trust also allows you to name a trustee, which is the person who will take care of your animal 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 animal’s care. Depending on your state, there may be other people included in the trust, such as a vet who makes sure the animal is being taken care of properly.

When you decide you’re ready to create an animal trust, contact an animal or equine 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 animal’s care. Then enjoy the peace of mind knowing your animal 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.