The following section is not legal advice. Readers should consult their own lawyers. To ask your own question, send it to Stable Management, P.O. Box 644, Woodbury, CT 06798, or e-mail email@example.com.
Do I Own Him?
If a person leaves a horse at your farm (with your permission) and states it will only be there a few days, doesn’t pay any money for feed or board (because you didn’t ask for any thinking it wouldn’t be there that long), what then is the legal length of time a person can keep this horse and declare that said horse is now “their property?”
I am going to assume that there is no written agreement involved in this situation. The starting point to answering your question is your state’s livestock lien law. In your case, these are found at Ohio Revised Statutes 1311.48 and 1311.49. Nearly every state, however, has livestock lien laws, and they are largely similar in concept.
A livestock lien law provides that anyone that boards any livestock acquires a lien against the livestock. This lien is similar to the security interest a bank has when you borrow money to purchase a car. Usually, it automatically comes into existence when the owner of livestock fails to pay for the care of his or her livestock—and horses are included in the definition of livestock.
In your case, you have a complication as to when you started “boarding” this horse. As a starting point, I would strongly recommend sending the horse owner a letter as soon as you determine that this transaction is changing from you providing some free board for a few days to an unpaid boarding situation. This enables you to have a definitive starting point to determine when paid board began.
Once the horse owner fails to pay the outstanding board, then the lien automatically kicks in. This doesn’t mean that you acquire title to the horse. All it means is that the horse owner cannot legally remove the horse from your property until he or she has paid the outstanding board.
At this point, you need to look at your state’s statute. The statute will determine how you need to proceed from this point. In your case (Ohio), you are required to publish ten (10) days prior to the sale of the horse notice that you intend to sell the horse. You then need to send a copy of the published notice to the horse owner by registered mail. After this period, you can send the horse to public auction.
The procedure in Ohio is substantially similar to most other states. In all of the statutes that I have looked at, an auction is part of the procedure. In no state do you automatically gain ownership of the horse but, by following the statute and getting a court order, you can then go to the breed registry and become the registered owner of the horse.
If the price that the horse receives at the auction is greater than the outstanding bill (including court costs and legal fees), then you are required to send the overage to the former owner. If the price is less than the outstanding bill, then the owner still owes you the difference—however, the debt is probably not collectable.
Who’s in Charge?
A couple that boards horses with me is planning an extended winter vacation traveling around the country and visiting some foreign lands. Itinerary is fluid and subject to change so getting in contact with them during their travels is likely to be difficult. Their horses are elderly and have chronic health problems.
What sort of document should I have them sign so that their horses can receive any needed veterinary attention while they are away? What arrangement should be made to provide for coverage of the veterinary expenses? Would asking them to designate someone as their agent provide me with a legally recognized surrogate for the boarder in the event that expensive health care or euthanasia became necessary? I would prefer not to make that decision on their behalf.
Your boarders should have a Limited Power of Attorney prepared, authorizing someone to make decisions on their behalf during their trip. By giving someone a Limited Power of Attorney, that person can make any and all decisions that your boarders could make if they were actually present. The person becomes the boarder’s agent.
The Limited Power of Attorney (which you would want a copy of) would specifically define what authority the agent has. For example, it could provide that the agent could spend up to $5,000 in veterinary bills, or that the agent is able to make the decision to put the boarder’s horse down. It could also cover other areas of your boarder’s life such as dealing with social security or managing your boarder’s assets. Even without owning animals, I would recommend a Limited Power of Attorney to anyone going overseas for an extended period.
I would strongly recommend against you being the agent. You have an inherent conflict of interest due to the fact that if the boarder’s horse is put down, you lose a stream of income. This factor could influence you in making decisions. I would recommend your clients appoint a family member or close friend, who understands what their wishes would be in a given situation.
For your peace of mind, you should insist on getting as much of this issue resolved before your boarders leave. Otherwise, you’ll spend their entire trip thinking about what can go wrong. A Limited Power of Attorney in this situation provides you with peace of mind, while protecting the interests of your boarders. [sm]