Dear Michael: We have three children and it already looks like there is going to be a battle when my husband and I die. The two children who left the farm feel like the one who stayed on the farm is getting and will get a lot more in value than what they will receive. The one who stayed on the farm thinks he should get the whole shooting match because he's the one who stuck around for the past twenty years. Things are already getting tense at family get togethers and a few sharp words have already been spoken between the three of them (and their spouses).
How are we going to deal with this situation so it doesn't blow up even before we die? What are our chances things will go the way we want them upon our death when they are already getting into it today? I feel like we've got bulls-eyes on our backs and the kids are getting ready to shoot. – Targeted.
Dear Targeted: There are a lot of factors coming in to play in the last decade that have made this a lot more difficult situation than it was in the nineteen-nineties.
One, farming has had a remarkable run and it's tough for the other kids to come home and see their sibling suddenly prospering in the agricultural business. When they left, no one wanted to farm because there was no money in it.
Two, for most of the children who left the farm, they put their money into their own futures – staying with the same job, keeping up with the company 401k retirement plan, buying and paying for their real estate. The sad truth is over the past decade, just about every American has seen a dramatic downslide in their overall net worth – from the loss of value on their homes, the losses in their retirement plans, the governments talk about lowering or changing Social Security. Again, just in the past ten years, we've seen a dramatic shift from people having a lot of security as they head into retirement to suddenly realizing they could be working (if they even have a job) for the rest of their life.
It's awful easy, when you've seen everything else in your life go down, to suddenly look at your farming sibling and see that their fortunes have gone the opposite direction. It's neither good nor bad, but it's certainly human nature, to realize the future shortcomings of what you thought was a securely planned retirement, and see your sibling suddenly sitting on top of land that's worth a fortune.
Three, and this is just part of the economics of this part of the country right now is North Dakota, and parts nearby, are suddenly swimming in wealth due to the economic, agriculture and/or oil development. This news has been heralded in every major news piece from CBS to PBS as well as Money Magazine to the New York Times, It used to be when you left the state, when people would ask where you were from, you'd answer and they'd reply 'Is that where the faces of the president's are?' I was just down in Texas and Denver this summer and everyone, and I mean everyone, knows where and what is happening up here now.
Your other children are also aware of this coverage, as well as what they've learned by returning back here and news from home. Somehow it's gotten implanted in their heads that everyone here is rich and getting richer – and by gosh, if the farming son is somehow gaining by this, then they should get a piece of the pie, as well. This is something you hear from all across the country – the rest of the country is more than just a little bit jealous about this situation – and it comes out, oddly enough, in estate planning, as well. That jealousy factor comes into play when talking to your children because things aren't so great where they live.
If you think this situation is going to get better in the future – or upon your death – Targeted, I think you needn't worry about that – you are guaranteed things are going to blow up some day if they are already sniping at one another.
When times were tough in agriculture and no one wanted to farm, estate counseling was a lot easier. Now that times are tough around the rest of the country coupled with the recent good fortunes in our area and in agriculture, estate planning is going to get intense.
How to deal with it? Work out a plan that you feel is fair to everyone and then discuss that plan with the members of your family. If they come home for holidays or for other reasons, tell them to set aside half a day when you can talk over what your plans are – and tell them to leave their spouses and kids out of it. You don't get to weigh in on what your in-laws parents are going to do – why should they be involved in your property settlements (unless they've been part of the farm business)?
Before you do, though, take some time to really add up all the numbers with an expert. I find a lot of people 'under value' the assets they own and expect their children to agree with them when they are blatantly low. If you do that, you're just throwing fuel on the fire and it's not going to go well. Next week we'll continue on this vein and talk more about what needs to be done.
NOTE: This information is not to be construed as legal advice and we recommend you consult an attorney, tax advisor, or other registered advisor for the completion of your plan. Please consult with an attorney regarding the need for legal advice and drafting of any legal documents.