Ownership vs. Guardianship

Imagine that overnight a new state law goes into effect declaring that from now on you do not own your animals but rather you are their “guardian.” Does this sound farfetched? Some local communities have already made this change The first legal step on this road has been the addition of “owner-guardian” language to local ordinances, then changing the wording to “guardian” only. One state now has “owner-guardian” as a part of its law, and various federal agencies are using the word “guardian” in conjunction with “owner” whenever the latter appears in their regulations.

Animal guardianship advocates suggest that referring to the human-animal relationship as one of guardianship rather than ownership will lead to better animal care. There is little basis for this assertion; an abusive animal owner would likely be an abusive animal “guardian.”

While local ordinances to date have generally applied only to dogs, cats, and other companion animals, a next step would be to expand such laws to include all domestic animals. With the groundwork in place, guardianship advocates could then move to the state level.

“Ownership” and “guardianship” are two distinct legal terms. The first is an expression and protection of the property owner’s legal rights, while the second imposes numerous legal duties and obligations on the guardian. Today as an animal owner, you can decide the animals’ care and future as long as you are not abusive, cruel, or neglectful: what to feed or where to house them; which animals to breed them with; what veterinary care to provide; whether to sell them, put them down, or include them in your Will.

If the law changes and you no longer own your horses but instead become their “guardian,” you will always have to act in the horses’ best interest. As you can well imagine, there will be many times when your horses’ best interests are not yours: euthanizing a horse to avoid a substantial veterinary bill could be prohibited, as could using horses in endeavors like racing and showing. A guardian would be unable to sell horses, as they are no longer property.

If you no longer own your horses, property insurance policies might not cover the loss of your horses or injury to them. Expenses, write-offs, and other deductions under federal and state tax laws, which are predicated upon horses being property and assets belonging to their owners, might no longer be available.

A successor-guardian could be appointed to sue you on behalf of your horses for not having taken care of them properly, for their injuries, and even for their deaths. The list of legal repercussions that could befall horse owners should the law be changed from ownership to “guardianship” is extensive, and it behooves the horse industry to remain vigilant about pending legislation.

Reprinted courtesy Equine Disease Quarterly.

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