Nothing brings out unresolved issues among family members like the settling of a family estate. When the estate involves selling or distributing farm land, the settlement is even more complex and emotion-laden, especially if one or more beneficiaries farms.
The settlement of any estate involving a family business that has existed for more than one generation is difficult enough. When ranch or farm land makes up a portion of the estate, the issues multiply.
I will defer the legal aspects of estate settlement to legal and estate planning experts and stick to the psychological aspects of estate settlement. Often the psychological matters, such as feelings among siblings about favoritism, are more unsettling than the legal and tax implications.
Why is distributing land in an estate emotionally difficult? Attachments to land are intense because farmers are motivated by a genetically programmed inclination to acquire the resources necessary to produce essentials for life: food and fiber for shelter, clothing and fuel.
Just as animals claim territories that have the food and shelter needed to produce the next generation, humans seek territories that enable the human species to reproduce and prosper. Humans have a drive to care for our families, communities and the entire population of people.
Our emotions get entangled in the acquisition of land, especially feelings of power, the pride that comes from acquisition of property and defensiveness about relinquishing possible claims to land. It’s difficult to behave in an egalitarian way.
Egalitarianism is a useful principle to practice. Egalitarian is a descriptor of how we should behave when we settle estates. It means we believe in the equality of all people and behave in a way that treats everyone involved in the matter equally.
What seems fair, or equal, can vary from beneficiary to beneficiary. Sometimes the estate plan or legal will contains provisions which are deliberately unequal.
Perhaps the parent who made the will or estate plan wanted to reward one beneficiary more than others. I know an elderly widow who plans to leave forty acres to each surviving child who is not farming while leaving 160 acres to the son who looks after her affairs and rents the family farm. Her plan makes sense to her but some of the children might not agree.
Feelings get hurt but we have to get past hurt feelings. The legal document takes priority over the feelings of the beneficiaries. It helps to assume the estate plan is a “given,” unless there are legitimate concerns about undue influence or other factors that can lead to legal challenges.
I have been involved as a psychological counselor or as an expert witness for many persons involved in legal challenges to a will or estate plan. I have never seen a legal challenge lead to resolution of hurt feelings among all the beneficiaries or descendants, but I have observed how structured follow-up meetings among the beneficiaries have helped.
Setting up a series of structured meetings of all the beneficiaries provides a way to deal with hurt feelings. It helps to have a meeting moderator who makes sure all the participants are given equal time and opportunity to talk. The moderator should also make sure the participants speak respectfully, do not interrupt, and that someone keeps minutes which are distributed to all the participants before the next meeting.
Meeting in a neutral setting like the back room of a restaurant or the office of an uninvolved party facilitates movement toward resolution.
It also helps to not allow other persons who are not beneficiaries, such as spouses, children, or advisors, to participate in the structured meetings. Allowing time to pass between meetings allows the participants to work through feelings and to plan what to say in future get-togethers.
Acknowledging other persons’ feelings helps. We might not agree with the terms of the estate settlement but hearing other beneficiaries validate our hurt feelings soothes perceived injustices.
It’s not the end of the world when we don’t get what we wanted in the estate settlement. We have to adjust our thinking and realize that there is always more than one way to resolve what we feel are injustices.
I know of one case in which the unjust estate settlement has become the source of family humor. Everybody in the family laughs at how their parents favored one child, but they worked out their feelings.
The main beneficiary eventually decided to share the wealth he inherited with the other family members because he valued their friendship and respect as much as their genetic ties.
Retaining or restoring good feelings among family members can be more important than getting everything we wanted out of the settlement. We can’t pick and choose our family members so we might as well get along well enough that we can treat each other civilly, and even maybe even affectionately, at future family gatherings.
– By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.