The two most common calls I seem to be receiving these days in my equine practice are from people who (a) have had horses left in their care for which they are not being paid board or (b) have allowed someone else to keep their horses only to find out later that the person has given away or sold or euthanized their horse without their knowledge or permission.
This article addresses the former situation. You have a horse on your property and the owner or other possessor of the horse (lessee, family member, etc.) is not paying the agreed upon boarding fees. What can you do? Well, assuming you have an agreement for how much they are supposed to pay you for board (written agreements are obviously best, but an oral agreement, especially if made in front of a witness, can be okay too), you may be able to successfully assert a boarding lien, also known as an agister’s lien or a stablemen’s lien, on the horse in your possession.
The statutes that you need to read are N.C. Gen. Stat. Section 44A-2 through 44A-6. You can find them at http://www.ncleg.net/gascripts/Statutes/Statutes.asp. Just put “44A” in the top search box. These statutes explain how to go about asserting a lien on a horse in your care when you aren’t being paid proper board for the animal. Basically they provide, in summary, that if you board animals for people for pay and you don’t get paid, you have a preferential lien on that animal so long as you don’t voluntarily give up possession of the animal and so long as you follow the requirements of those statutes. The statutes provide that once you have not been paid for a period of 30 days you may begin the process to assert your lien on the animal. After 30 days of not being paid you can serve a notice on the owner of the animal (or person with whom you dealt regarding the animal) that contains very specific factual information set out in the statute and giving them ten days from the day that they receive the notice to respond via certified mail and, if they disagree with your assertion of the lien, to request a hearing before the court to determine whether you have a lien. If they do not request such a hearing and you have met all statutory requirements, then you will be entitled to sell the animal at a public or private sale, depending on the situation. Typically a public sale is better because you are permitted to buy at that type of sale whereas you cannot buy the horse yourself at a private sale.
Once you’ve reached the point where you are permitted to sell the animal, you have to give notice of the sale to the owner (or person with whom you dealt regarding the animal) and that notice has to contain very specific information as well. If you follow the letter of the statute properly with regard to all the notices and the sale itself, the buyer at the sale will take title to the horse free and clear of any liens and the proceeds of the sale will pay, first, your reasonable expenses in pursuing the debt (the statute does not include attorney’s fees specifically, but you may have an argument that you are entitled to them), second, the past due boarding obligation owed for the animal’s board and care; and last, any surplus must be paid to the owner (or person with whom you dealt regarding the animal) or, if you cannot find him or her, into the clerk of court for the county in which you have been boarding the horse.
This is of course a very simplified summary of the law regarding liens on boarded animals, but hopefully it has given you a flavor of how the lien process works. And we are of course assuming here that you can actually find buyers to come to your sale if you have one. Right now there is a surplus of horses and in many situations, even where the statutory procedure is followed perfectly, there will be no buyers present at the sale to bid on the horses being sold. If that is the case then you’re still unfortunately out of luck when it comes to that horse. If you’re having a public sale, you can bid in at the amount of your damages and the horse becomes yours. That may be good or that may be bad, depending on your perspective (and the horse!). Then you have a choice to make about whether you keep the horse for yourself or donate the horse to USERL or similar organization. In some cases, I have had clients who asserted a lien on a horse which was left at their property without payment, sold the horse at a public sale, had to buy the horse themselves for the amount of their lien (basically just forgiving the debt to themselves) and ended up selling the horse to a buyer in another state whom they strategically located and contacted about the horse because of that animal’s specific attributes. That is a rarity, of course, but can actually happen and it is truly wonderful when it does!
My recommendation is to hire a good equine lawyer at least for the first time you decide to assert a boarding lien on a horse in your care. Once you’ve been guided through the process once by a legal professional and developed an internal procedure for asserting such a lien, the next time you just might be able to handle it all by yourself!
If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I often will answer a short and simple question for free if I have time and know the answer off the top of my head! If you don’t hear back from me quickly, it’s not because I don’t love you or think you have a great question or because I don’t know the answer (usually), I’m probably just really busy and haven’t had a chance to email back. And you can always buy the first hour of my time for $250 (my usual hourly rate for 2013 is $325). Lots of folks will save up all their equine (and some corporate or real estate) legal questions and short documents and sit with me for an hour and we will do as much as we can during that hour and it’s only $250. You can check out my Twitter feed @nchorselawyer as well as our firm’s Equine Law Group web page at http://www.rl-law.com/equine if you’re interested, and yes, in addition to providing what I hope are interesting and informative stories, this blog and the Twitter feed referenced above are also advertisements for legal services. I have to tell you that in bold, says the State Bar.