The majority of us don’t like to consider our own mortality; it’s just too morbid. Yet we all know life can be unpredictable. In a split second, a disease, a car accident, a freak occurrence, or an act of nature can alter or end a person’s life. Such circumstances turn a family’s life upside down—and leave the injured, ill, or deceased individual’s horse in limbo.
In most families there’s one primary horse person and “the rest of the family.” If you read H&R, chances are that person is you. If you’re incapacitated or die, your bereaved family is now dealing with the stress of the situation and an animal that requires knowledgeable care.
Here, we’ll help you prepare for your horses’ care in the event you can no longer provide it. We’ll give you peace of mind and your family the plan they need.
Why It Matters
“Emergency decisions are made in supremely stressful situations that aren’t conducive to rational decision making,” says Denise Farris, a Kansas-based attorney who specializes in equine law. “Sadly, many of these horses are turned out to pasture or go to persons or entities who’d not be the first choice of the prior owner.”
Quick decisions made in these situations can have unforeseen consequences—and negative results. It’s more productive to evaluate your horse’s care decisions before the emergency arises.
This allows you to weigh options in a mindful and deliberative manner so bad decisions can be avoided in favor of the best-case scenario for all involved. Advance planning enables you to create a safety net ranging from lining up contingency plans to setting aside finances and securing the consent of all parties involved.
“Isn’t it much better to control the disposition of a valued horse rather than leaving it to chance?” asks Farris.
You’re Not Alone
The good news is it’s increasingly common for pet owners to include their animals in estate planning. According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2017–2018 National Pet Owners Survey, increasing numbers of pet owners are making provisions—either financial or by naming a caretaker—for pets in their wills. Those in Generation Y (born 1977 to 1995) are leading the charge overall, and more than half of horse owners who responded have named caretakers for their horse.
Horses, dogs, and cats are not legally viewed as “persons.” Consequently, funds cannot be left to a pet in the event of your death. However, Farris’ practical advice can help you create a plan to ensure that, if tragedy strikes, your horse is cared for.
Choosing a Caretaker
The first step in providing for your horse is to determine who you’d like to be the caretaker or guardian. A spouse, family member, or friend who’s willing to accept your horse is the best place to start, advises Farris.
Not all family members share a love of horses. If family and friends are unwilling or unable to care for your horse, trusted professionals such as your trainer, veterinarian, or others may be able to provide guidance. These individuals can offer connections to other horse owners who could provide an environment similar to yours for your horse. For individuals who keep their horses at home, a neighbor who already owns horses in similar circumstances may be the best alternative.
Initiating conversations that address “what if” scenarios will feel awkward. Most people are understandably uncomfortable talking about contingency plans, but sharing your wishes with a designated individual gives your horse a better chance of finding a suitable home in unplanned circumstances.
During the discussion, outline how you’d like your horse to be cared for and identify any special health needs. Ask if the person is comfortable accepting the responsibility and encourage them to voice any concerns.
Creating a Trust or Will
The next step in providing for your horse when you’re not able is to investigate your state laws to see if you can create a trust specifically for the care of an animal. A trust is a written statement that outlines, in detail, how you’d like your horse to be cared for if you become ill or die.
A trust includes information such as feeding regimen, condition, training level, special health needs, etc. and lasts only until the horse dies. When a trust covers more than one horse, it terminates upon the last horse’s death.
A trust also names a guardian or trustee of the estate.
“This is someone willing to oversee both the animal’s caretaker as well as disposition of the funds,” Farris explains. “Line up successor plans as well, in the event your initial designee is unable to serve.”
Creating a specific trust document is more expensive than a will. It does, permit you to name a caregiver, direct funds to that caregiver, and make disbursement of those funds subject to specific terms, says Farris.
“Depending on your state’s laws, you may be able either to create a trust fund specifically for your horse or in your will create a funding directive that’ll provide for a designated caretaker’s costs in caring for your horse until his death,” Farris explains.
If the funding directive is set up as a form of trust, you can also create insurance that would name the trust as a beneficiary upon your death.
An alternative to a trust is to designate long-term care instructions within your will.
“Understand that under a will, the money goes directly to the caregiver, who can either use it for the pet or use it for themselves with no legal recourse,” she warns. “Therefore, naming a trusted caregiver is key.”
In either scenario, it’s critical to work with local estate and trust attorneys.
“Ask them specifically if they’ve done prior wills or trusts that establish long-term care and funding instructions for animals of the deceased,” Farris recommends.
Saving for Long-Term Care
Providing funds to support your horse’s long-term care is just as important as choosing a caretaker and establishing the legal provisions. When funding the trust, calculate how much is required on a monthly and annual basis for the expected life of the animal. Itemize board or feed costs, plus veterinarian and farrier fees.
Competitive horses and breeding stock may incur additional expenses if they’re to be maintained at the same level of competition or production.
For example, a horse that’s a high-level performer will require additional finances to remain in training or gradually transition into a different lifestyle. A recreational horse won’t have the same requirements. For all horses, build in a buffer that includes a percentage above maintenance needs in case the horse sustains an injury or becomes sick.
Depending on the horse’s life expectancy and the amount of money available, your caretaker might find themselves with a surplus.
“Consider what happens to those excess funds upon the death of the animal,” Farris advises.
If Money’s the Issue
Horse owners who lack sufficient finances to fund an account for a caretaker should consider where the horse will go upon their own incapacity or death.
“Donating it to a therapeutic riding program that’s been thoroughly vetted for its reputation and horse care may be an option, depending on the horse’s qualifications,” Farris observes. Be aware, though, that therapy organizations typically have rigorous criteria for the acceptance of a horse, including those regarding the animal’s age, size, health, disposition, level of training, experience with beginners, quality of gaits, and ground manners.
“For an older horse, leaving it to a reputable private animal sanctuary might also be an option,” Farris offers. Bear in mind, however, that sanctuaries and rescue facilities are often at capacity—with a waiting list—so do the investigating needed in advance to see what might be available in your area.
In Case of Emergency
The unpredictable nature of accidents means you may not be home when disaster strikes you. If you’re caring for horses on your own property, that means your emergency away from home may jeopardize your horses’ care until a designated individual is contacted and your plan is put into place.
If you’re able to do so, notifying emergency workers that you have pets at home without care can speed up response time.
If you’re unconscious or worse, paramedics and emergency responders will search your person for identification. For this reason, create a card that can be stored near your driver’s license or other identification inside your wallet or purse. It needn’t be fancy—just a basic note that includes contact information for designated caretakers and a listing of the type and number of pets can suffice.
In addition, leave a list of feeding instructions for chore time and any medication in a visible place within the barn so anyone can provide at least basic care on an interim basis.
Choose Peace of Mind
Estate planning can be daunting, to be sure. No one wants to dwell on worst-case scenarios. But taking the time to have uncomfortable conversations without the pressure of life-altering circumstances looming means you’ll have an opportunity to weigh your options thoroughly.
“If you truly love and value your horses, and you’re unsure of your heirs’ ability to recognize your wishes concerning the disposition of these pets upon your death, then it’s much better to have a plan in place now, that you’ve created,” Farris concludes.