Dear Michael: We have nine kids and we are working on setting up a life estate to protect the farm from if we end up in a nursing home. We have a couple of the kids who are involved in the farm, although raising nine kids didn't leave us a lot of room for expanding our farm operation, so we don't have all that much. The problem is the two kids who farm don't get along and both are making rather angry statements to each other, and even to us, as to how they want to deal with these asset. My husband and I are not in good health at all, and we've been arguing over this for two years already. My husband and I are ready to throw up our hands in disgust and let the chips fall where they may. Do you have any suggestions? – End of Our Rope
Dear End of the Rope: There's a tried and tested rule in estate planning that everyone learns sooner or later: No matter how long or how many discussions you have with your children about how your estate is going to be handled upon your death(s), you are not going to make everyone one hundred percent happy.
As harsh as that sounds, it falls under the same category of taking the whole family out to dinner at a restaurant and letting them choose the restaurant. Guess what? You won't get a decision by everyone that's going to make everyone happy.
In other words, it's human nature, and fighting human nature can exhaust and paralyze the process of effective estate planning. I would guess as many as forty percent of the people out there without estate plans – wills, trusts or other up-to-date planning – don't have this done because they try to make everyone happy. Well, that's the ultimate in 'cutting off your nose to spite your face' action a family can take.
I've had cases – much like yours – where the children kept right on fighting up until their parents when into the nursing home, right up until Medicaid showed up and said they are ineligible for care until they sell down their assets to nothing, and right up until the assets all gone. And they were still fighting.
Sometimes, estate planning can be the 'green beans' of life.
By that I mean, when your kids were little, if you'd let them, they'd eat nothing but candy or cereal or whatever they liked and never eat any of the things necessary to stay strong and healthy. You, being a good parent, knew that if your kids didn't eat their green beans or other good fruits and vegetables, your children would die of scurvy – if you let them eat only what they wanted to eat. So, you made them eat their green beans.
Now, thirty years later, comes the ultimate 'green beans' in life, where you have to tell your children, "Look, if you don't find a way to eat your green beans, you're not getting any dessert!"
Or, in estate planning terms you'd say this: "Look, this is the way I see how things are going to be fair and I understand you don't necessarily agree with me. However, here are your options. You and your brother either come up with a workable solution in two week's time, or we move on to option two, and we are going to split it up between all the kids, share and share alike. So, you two better sit down and eat your green beans right now, or there's not going to be any dessert, got it?"
And if they are still acting like five-year olds two weeks later, I'd say "Okay, you didn't want to eat your green beans, and now we're going to divide the estate pie dessert with you, your brother and all of the other kids, share and share alike, so there won't be a very big slice of pie left over for you. We gave you the chance – you said 'no, thank you'. So we did what good parents do – we made the decision we had to. The life estate deed is being filed this coming Friday."
Then, go on with your life knowing you've done the best that could be done. I bet if you look back, you've made hundreds – if not thousands – of these decisions with your kids from the time you became a parent. Some good, some so-so but all of them still better than making no decision.
Otherwise, scurvy would be a leading killer of children in this country.