You’ve heard it before – by the numbers, women live longer than men. For instance, in South Dakota, the current life expectancy of a man is 76.6 years, while the current life expectancy of a woman is 82.4 years. While it is certainly not that way in every case, the loss of a loved one and the fear of what the future holds for the surviving spouse can be overwhelming. Having an estate plan in place that sets forth a plan for some of the unknowns can be a source of great comfort for those who are left to make the decisions.
I have had the privilege and heartache of sitting with many widows who had recently lost their farming husbands – all too often who were younger than the statistics suggest. A widow will often speak of her husband and his amazing ability to make decisions and handle the numerous farming demands placed upon him. Decisions like: what crop insurance to buy, the right value of the put and the call, the appropriate lease rate, and the appropriate amount to spend on that quarter of ground. They speak of their husband’s ability to roll with the punches that come with being a farmer – unpredictable weather, government regulations, moisture levels – and the storms of life that come with living in this world – the cancer diagnosis, the child with addictions, the overdue loan. Their husbands had successfully managed their farming operations, and had accomplished much in providing well for their families.
But then the unexpected happened – a massive stroke, heart attack, or farm accident – and everything changed. Suddenly, their husband was not there to make those decisions or to be that rock that weathers the storms of life. But decisions needed to be made. And so it fell on their widows to make the day to day decisions, as well as even bigger decisions: who will keep the farming operations going? How will the farm meet the production requirements for what has been contracted? How do I make sure I have enough income to cover the taxes owed, land payments, repair expenses, hired man wages, and my regular daily living expenses?
Their husband was able to manage the numerous demands of the operations. But like many, their husbands failed to put a long-term plan into place for when they would no longer be in the operations. They meant to – they knew they needed to or “should” have an estate plan. I am sure they had their reasons why it didn’t get done. Perhaps it was the time commitment – there is much to maintain on the farm and no time to get away for an estate planning meeting. Perhaps it was the expense. Admittedly, a quality estate plan that protects the farmland from a sale by partition action and clearly spells out various operational issues including any lease rates and lease options will cost more than a two-page last will and testament. It’s a heartache though – most farming operations will spend more time maintaining one tractor for one growing season than they will spend on designing and implementing their estate plan to protect their entire estate, their family, their legacy.
But these excuses seem hollow when sitting across the table from a widow now facing not only the loss of a loved one, but the daunting task of trying to make the decisions regarding her livelihood. Suddenly decisions regarding the entire family legacy fall on her shoulders. Oftentimes, she has never had to make these decisions on her own before. There is a range and a rage of emotions when facing the loss of a farming husband, and often widows will talk through “if only.” If only he hadn’t ignored the warning signs. If only he hadn’t gone on that road that day. If only he’d taken the time to position their estate better, to spell out what should happen in the event he died. These “if only’s” are all the more heartbreaking because they can change nothing. In reality, one cannot go back.
Much in life is out of our control. But you can take steps to have your affairs in order. The 4- to 8-hour time commitment and cash expense seem trivial to the peace of mind, for both husband and wife, which comes from knowing a long-term plan is in place if something does happen to the primary farm operator. Commit today to investing the time and cash resources necessary to plan well, not only for your present, but for what may come in the future. Your loved ones will thank you.