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 in 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 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 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 – goes beyond simply the determination of which trust and what distribution plan is right for a family. Successful agricultural estate planning requires an experienced estate planning attorney who really listens. She listens to the family history, the family dynamics, the nuances in the operations, and a family’s goals for the future prior to making any recommendations as to what strategies would be best. The estate plan should specifically address those “hot button issues” that cause families to fall apart with less focused plans: issues like 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 & 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.
You will feel successful when you know you have done the very best to position yourself and your loved ones well. Your value is not about how large your net worth is. Your value comes in the legacy you provide through a life well lived and an estate plan well designed. A quality plan provides peace of mind, protection for the family, clear operational guidelines, and much more. A thorough estate plan offers clarity and the articulated vision that allows a family to remain a family and a farm to remain a farm for generations to come.
*As seen in Dakota Farmer