Their faces were contorted with fear as I spoke about the importance of a well-crafted will. At the lunch break the farm woman confessed that her husband was being sued by 5 greedy siblings, under the guise of taking care of a demented dad’s interests. I asked quietly if they had a good agricultural lawyer, and she said she was disappointed by the lawyer’s lack of understanding of farm business.
At the farm kitchen table a very astute and innovative farmer confessed to me that he did not have written land lease agreements with his many landlords, because “having things in writing attracts lawsuits.” I was shocked at his beliefs !
Another farmer approached me to reveal that she is now motivated to update their wills, noting that 30 years has passed since the last will was signed. “Where did the time go ?”
Hearing or reading horror stories of wills gone wrong, families disintegrating in court, and fear of being taken to the cleaners in court are not going to make you bust the beliefs you have about agricultural law. I suggest that a face to face visit with a great ag. lawyer is really what is needed for you to face your fear, and sign the written agreements anyway.
April is wills month, and every day is a great day to take the next step to get your affairs in better order. Don’t strive for perfection, just get it started and revise the documents as your situations require. There is a certain freedom in knowing that you have outlined your concerns and wishes to your lawyer, checked the scenarios that other successful farm friends have employed, and then signed the completed drafts.
One woman was particularly delighted to start understanding that she and her husband really had to take care of their own personal needs first, and not get hung up on what the adult children expected or desired. She had let go of her belief that the will had to be “perfect”. It also became clear to her that should could direct the lawyer with the vision of what she wanted, and then trust her advisor to craft the appropriate terms and clauses.
“Elaine, how do you know you are getting good advice from your trusted advisor?”
Ask. Ask for referrals of your successful colleagues for names of advisors that they trust and are pleased with performance. Interview a few professionals in person before you chose the one that “feels right” for you to work with, and ask them for names of folks you can chat with to qualify their work habits and expertise.
Be sure to ask for a quote or fee range of expected expenses or charges for the total cost of getting your will updated. Don’t be cheap ! Invest the time, money and thought it takes to craft a sound plan in your will. I don’t need to tell you that a great will can keep you out of court battles with siblings. I can’t guarantee against greed, folks can still be nasty and challenge the wills.
I do need to tell you that my bias is that conversation is the best insurance against contested wills and conflict in the family. Let there be no surprises. I am a big fan of giving “with a warm hand”. Let the parents see the value of giving gifts and transferring assets while they are still of sound mind, and happy to hear “thanks Dad and Mom” from appreciative children and grandkids.
Don’t let the folklore of wicked families keep your clan stuck. Grab the bull by the horns and take charge of getting your affairs in order.
Celebrate with a nice meal and laughter after you have signed the wills and the power of attorney documents.
I write this on the plane, returning home from a 4 day speaking tour in B.C.
The land values in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island bring out the greed monster when the non-farming heirs realize that the farm they left 30 years ago has inflated value due to rising land values, and they dearly want some of the gold.
Unfortunately, farmland is also being encroached upon by large housing pressures along with restricted usage policies of the agricultural land reserve. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether you have a personal “wealth bubble” that you can draw from for your family lifestyle needs in those 20 years before death. An island farmer confided in me that he was very well off with his personal assets and was just intending to “give” or rollover his farm assets to his farming child. The sad thing is that I know more about the farm dad’s plans than his children do. I would really like him to have a family meeting to talk about his intent for the rollover, and not let there be any surprises.
I encourage all of you to read your wills to your spouse, and then read them to the children, your adult children. Let there be no family secrets, and let the heirs understand your intent in the decisions you came to with your will. Explain the “why” behind your will’s clauses.
Can you give to one child and not to another? Yes. It has been done, because the one left out knew the intent of the parent who wanted all assets to continue in the struggling farm. The “left out” child also knew they were deeply loved, and they continue to this day to be the glue of holding the family together with celebrations and gatherings. Giving money or withholding money is not necessarily an indication of the emotional bank account of the parent-child relationship. You can bless your children with education, love, gifts of time. Talk about your expectations.
I encourage you to read Randy Alcorn’s book: “Money, possessions and eternity” to challenge your thinking on what is healthy for inheritances and gifts to family.
Please don’t call me in six months to announce that you are going to court. It has happened to me as this columnist before, and I really want you to act, not complain about how you “wish you would have acted.” Get it done !