Keeping a family a family
When my only daughter, Rachel, was in third grade at a public school, she was asked to complete the following statement as part of Martin Luther King Day: “I have a dream that ...” She completed her statement by saying “I have a dream that everyone would come to know the Lord.” Now, several years later, thinking of her dream for the world still brings tears to my eyes.
While I share my daughter’s dream for all people, I have a dream for the families we serve as well. I have designed thousands of estate plans in my career, many of them for farming clients. I enjoy meeting with families to determine which estate-planning strategies and tools will be most effective for their particular situation, but that is not why I do what I do. I do what I do because I have a dream of “keeping a family a family, and a farm a farm.”
I get excited when we can save families from paying unnecessary estate tax. But it brings great joy to my heart when I hear of families who spend Christmas together for the first time in years, because they have been able to get a plan in place for the future and now have the clarity to move forward, knowing how their legacy will take shape.
Everyone knows someone with a tragic story of how a family fell apart after the death of a parent, or how a family was forced to sell homestead land because they could not either afford or agree on how to keep the land. Most often, this tragedy could have been avoided by working with the right type of estate planner. Someone who is going to “get into your world” and ask the questions that need to be asked. Most of our job is helping our clients shape their vision for their family and then clearly see the decisions they need to make so their vision is an enforceable reality.
A high-quality agricultural estate plan provides far more than a final distribution pattern (i.e., who is going to receive what). Some attorneys, but certainly not all, recognize that traditional estate planning, which distributes “an equal share for each child,” will not work in farming families. It might be equal, but it’s rarely fair, and often leads to what we call a “divide-and-destroy” farming estate plan. It doesn’t recognize the work of the children who farm, and it can actually be unfair to the ones who don’t.
Successful agricultural estate planning — the type of planning that helps keep a family a family and a farm a farm — should specifically address those “hot-button issues” that cause families to fall apart with less focused plans: such as rental rates and lease options for a child working on the farm; perhaps who is going to receive what land; how the farming operation will function immediately following the death of the operator; provisions to equalize the estate for children not involved in farming, and such.
The power of the plan comes not in the plan itself, but rather in what that plan provides. Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, often said, “Become a millionaire not for what you will have, but for what it will make of you.” I encourage you to “provide, preserve, and protect” your farm and family goals with an estate plan — not for the pages and pages of legal documents, but for what it will make of you and the benefits it provides your family. Often, you will see your family, your beneficiaries, your life, your history, your goals and your fears in a whole new light. You will become an empowered steward when you work with the right attorney.
Thompson, Sioux Falls, S.D., is an estate planning attorney. For more information, call her at 605-362-9100 or see www.cathompsonlaw.com.
This article published in the July, 2014 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.