By: Emens & Wolper Law Firm, Heidi R. Kemp
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” This quote is by John Burroughs and is one of my favorites. I grew up on a dairy farm in Belmont County. Due to schooling and my career, I lived outside of the area for about ten years after college. While living away, I could always tell when I needed a trip home to the farm. It was like my battery was being slowly drained. Over the many years, I often tried to put into words the feeling I would get as I drove down that dirt road, taking in the rolling hills, the country church, and the cows in the fields. And then, the explosion of elation I felt when I rounded the big turn that brought my family farm into view. Home – it always brought a sense of relief, peace, and contentment. The beauty of the farm never failed to recharge my battery.
I started to wonder if others felt that way – I mean, isn’t it just land? But, I’ve encountered numerous people – friends, family, and clients – who feel the exact same way. There’s an invisible connection with that farm that is indescribable. I knew I did not want to be a dairy farmer. And, even though it is now a beef cattle farm, I still don’t have an active role in working on the farm. But, there’s something about it I can’t shake. It’s like the land, the blood, sweat, and tears of the farmers before you and those of your family seep into your bones and becomes part of your soul creating a fierce pride that is almost unreasonable.
So, why am I telling you this? As the days pass, I meet more people who feel the way I do. So, when I find out many farmers or landowners who deeply love and care about their property do not have any sort of estate plan or succession plan in place, I am very saddened. There are countless reasons why people do not do estate planning. But doing nothing often results in undesired outcomes.
What if there are multiple children but only one or two works on the farm? What is fair is not always equal and what is equal is not always fair. For example, let’s say a farmer has three children and only one works on the farm. Farmer leaves everything he has to his children, equally. Is that fair to the child who has put the blood, sweat, and tears into the farm? Do all the children feel the same way about the farm as the parent did? If the child who works on the farm relies on farming as his livelihood, what kind of bind does that put him into if he must rent the property from his siblings or buy them out?
Then there’s the question of – how do we keep it in the family? Is that important to you? If so, giving it outright to your children may not accomplish that goal. There are various planning techniques that can eliminate or diminish the risk of the farm ending up in the hands of someone outside of the family. I’ve often heard people say, “I’ll just leave it to my kids and they can figure it out from there.” That may work. Or, it may be a complete and utter disaster. If you care so deeply for something, why not ensure it is protected?
On the flip side, I’ve had farmers who want to restrict the farm so much that no one outside of the family will ever be able to own it. While I understand where those feelings come from, it’s important to try to find a balance. If in several generations down the line, none of your descendants care to farm or have any connection to the land, are you doing them and/or the farm a disservice by not allowing it to be farmed and cared for by someone who felt about it as you did?
As in all estate planning, every situation is unique. The point is – do something! Doing nothing may seem like the easier road to take but when you reach the end of that road, will you be happy with the final destination?