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.

Incapacity Documents in Other States

As winter approaches, I’ve been asked by clients who are going to warmer climates whether they should have additional incapacity documents drafted in the state where they will stay most of the winter. The first thing I tell them is to make sure their Massachusetts incapacity documents are current. They may want to change their health care proxy or perhaps the contact information for people listed in those documents has changed.

Once we address the Massachusetts documents and make sure they are current and properly executed, then I talk about the issue of other jurisdictions. If you are just going to another state for a few days or a few weeks, then chances are you do not need to have any additional documents drafted for that state. Generally speaking, another state will honor your documents if you are on a trip and have an accident. There are exceptions, and I discuss those with my clients when they tell me the exact state or states they are visiting. Remember that if you are traveling, you should have a current copy of the Emergency Contact Card behind your license in your wallet.

What happens if you are actually living in another state for months? Attorneys differ on whether or not you should have a second set of documents. The disagreement stems from the fact that if both sets of documents do not comply with both state requirements, then only the ones with the most current date will be followed. The reason the most currently-dated documents will be followed is because there is an assumption that those documents reflect your current wishes and take precedent over the older documents. That may not be the case at all, but that is what will be presumed about the documents. There are several ways to rectify this potential problem. One way is to make sure that both sets of documents follow the execution requirements of both states. For example, Massachusetts requires two witnesses and a notary for most incapacity documents. If the state you are visiting requires three, then it’s easy enough to execute your Massachusetts documents with three, instead of two, witnesses. If you can’t fulfill both states’ requirements or if a state is silent about its requirements, then another possible way to address this issue is to include a notarized letter with your documents, stating that both documents reflect your current wishes, even though their dates may be different.

If you want to find out the best course of action for the state you are visiting, contact me today. Because I am entirely virtual, I can meet with you via phone, email, or Skype/Zoom, even if you have already gone on your travels.

Contesting a Will

massachusetts attorney poa power of attorney health care proxy advance directive living will conservatorship guardianshipI often get asked why I favor a trust over a will when drafting estate plans. Sometimes a will works well for someone, particularly if the estate is very small and simple. One of the big reasons I don’t favor wills is that they are easier to challenge in court than a trust. Challenging or contesting a will can just add more chaos and pain to an already difficult time when someone dies.

A will, unlike a trust, has to go through probate. That means the will is filed in the court and becomes a part of the public record. Anyone can see what assets you had and which ones you left to certain people and organizations. Unfortunately, death can bring out the worst in people. Individuals who you would never think would fight or care about possessions suddenly can become very difficult.

There are several ways a person can challenge your will. He might claim that you were under the undue influence of someone when you drafted your will and that the will does not actually represent your wishes. She might claim that your will was not executed correctly, in accordance with Massachusetts law. He might claim that you didn’t have capacity when you drafted and executed your will, which means you weren’t of “sound mind and body,” due to mental illness or medication. She might claim that there was fraud, such as your signature was forged.

There are certainly situations where these claims may be valid and need to be raised. But when it is a challenge simply brought by someone who is left out of the will or who is angry he or she didn’t inherit something he or she wanted, then it’s an unnecessary delay at an already difficult time.

What happens when you contest a trust? I will discuss that legal question in a future blog post so keep checking back or follow Windhorse Legal on Facebook to see when I post it.

If you have more questions concerning the contesting of wills or want to talk to me about drafting a will or trust, contact me today.

Will vs. Living Will

When I talk to my clients, they often ask if they will get a living will with their documents and how a living will is different from, well, a plain, old regular will. They are actually very different documents.

A will is a legal document that allows you to leave property to certain individuals and organizations when you die. It lists a representative who will oversee the process and make sure your wishes are followed. A will must go through probate, which means it must be submitted to a court for approval. The probate process can take at least 9 months and sometimes years. It is generally a public process so anyone can see what possessions you have left to whom. A will can also be challenged – meaning someone is arguing that it should not be enforced for various reasons – extending the probate process even longer.

A living will is an incapacity document. In Massachusetts, we don’t actually use the term “living will,” which is probably a good thing since it causes so much confusion. We call it an advance directive. It instructs medical personnel about the types of end of life care you want to have and don’t want to have. Interestingly, an advance directive is not legally binding in Massachusetts, unlike the situation in many other states. Why should you have an advance directive if it is not legally enforceable? An advance directive provides end-of-life instructions for your medical personnel as well as your health care proxy, so it is actually a vitally important part of your incapacity documents. Most medical personnel will follow the directions in a properly drafted and executed advance directive. In addition, your health care proxy will undoubtedly be distraught if you are incapacitated to the point of needing end-of-life care. An advance directive takes the pressure off of your proxy having to decide themselves what procedures you want or don’t want at that time.

If you have more questions about wills vs. living wills, aka advance directives, or if you need either or both drafted or updated, please contact me today.

Updating Your Estate Plan

As a part of the estate planning I do for my clients, I contact them each year to see if they need to make any updates or changes to their plan. You may think that once you get your estate plan drafted that you can make some changes just by handwriting in the changes and adding your signature to the change. Not so fast!

There are specific procedures that have to be followed when you execute the documents in your estate plan. According to Massachusetts law, you need a certain number of witnesses and those witnesses must meet certain requirements. You must also have documents notarized. If you do not meet these requirements, then your will, trust, or incapacity documents could be considered invalid after you become incapacitated or die. All that hard work and money that you put into getting your documents drafted correctly by an attorney will be wasted. Even more importantly, you may not receive the care you wanted, and your beneficiaries may not receive the inheritance you left them.

In addition, making a change to your estate plan without having your estate planning attorney do it may have other ramifications. You may put in a term or make a change that is not recognized by Massachusetts. For example, an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust must have certain language in it or it may be successfully challenged by Medicaid, causing you to potentially lose your home to pay for nursing care costs. An estate planning attorney stays current on any state law that may effect estate plans. This allows her to draft documents that meet your needs and are legally binding.

If you haven’t updated your estate plan in the last year or longer, contact me so we can see if you want any changes made, and I can make sure they are done correctly.