Case #428 ♦

Kevin and Nancy had decided to return to Kevin's family farm some twenty years ago. Five years ago, Kevin's mother, Rona, had passed on after a long and difficult sickness. This left Kevin and Nancy to deal with Kevin's father, Albert, the family patriarch, and still owner of the land.

Over the years and especially since Rona's death, Kevin and Nancy have approached Albert about what his plans were for the eventual dispensation of the land. Albert had answered, "I think I know what I want to do, but I just haven't put that down on paper yet.” When questioned what his thoughts were, Albert would always say, "You'll find out when the time is right.”

Albert's mental health has started to decline a bit. He's still very sharp to talk to, but Kevin and Nancy have noticed strange things about his behavior.

Kevin said, “Albert tends to repeat the same stories over and over again. Every new person he meets gets the same stories verbatim. He also repeats things he's told to us as if it were the first time. He's gotten more reclusive and shut away from everyday activities and he seems to get more and more suspicious of the motives of people assisting him – even me!”

Over the years, I have had many people come to me who's mental cognizance has been diminished. Some of the warning signs are repeating oneself, inability to adapt to different thinking, not making obvious choices out of fear or suspicion, etc. When this person starts to understand they cannot function in normal society and becomes reclusive or withdrawn from the world, then you know the person's mental capacities are accelerating and is getting much worse.

Some of the reasons for this cognitive impairment might be Alzheimers, dementia, or–for many people–small strokes occurring.

Alzheimer's is a fatal disease as first it attacks brain cells controlling memory and day to day function but eventually it attacks the brains cells controlling vital functions and organs, such as the heart or lungs. Dementia is a gentler form of Alzheimer's but perhaps more devastating as it too attacks the memory of a given person but the person's overall health is unaffected. These are people who will require long-term care for a long time.

Small strokes are characterized more by sudden changes in personality or behavior. One day, the person can pronounce a word correctly, the next day they don't pronounce it correctly and they don't notice the difference. Or small changes in personality such as sudden suspicions of people or inability to make small decisions–decisions they made easily not that long ago. Small strokes can cause sudden minor changes to the person and to their personality. Of course, these small strokes can and normally do lead to major disabling strokes someday.

Too many times people bring their parents in to me and say, “We can't get them to do this or that towards planning their estate,” and after a short conversation with the parents, I discover one or both of them is stuck on an idea–normally an idea from the past–or they repeat themselves over and over again or cannot make the smallest of decisions. At that point, I realize what I am dealing with and I need to change my communication methods.

I need to be able to get them to talk about things and bring them to a new conclusion about what they are ‘stuck' on doing their estate planning. Usually, this is done with repetitive affirmations of their goals until it's repeated enough times the goal starts to become part of their thinking process. You have to have patience, patience, and more patience when reaffirming these thoughts and ideas and make certain they understand eventually this idea was their own and has now become part of their psyche.

Even so, I've had people who have gone far, far along in the planning process who suddenly withdraw, treat me with suspicion as if they'd never met me before after numerous meetings, and crawl into their turtle shell. For some, it's too late.

At this point, we hope there is a power of attorney in effect and it's time to call a family pow-wow and come up with a plan for dad and/or mom's care and the distribution of the estate. As long as the whole family is involved, the POA will act in everyone's input and best interest. The POA can make changes in ownership of the land, setting up bank accounts, etc. but does not have the power to write a will for the parents.


Michael Baron is the owner of Great Plains Diversified Services, Inc. and is a regular contributor to the "Farm And Livestock Directory". Involved in farm estate planning for more than thirty years, Michael Baron is well-versed in farm income taxation, estate taxation, retirement planning, transition planning, oil and gas estate issues, and all other issues facing the family farm, including family dynamics.  Presented in a comprehensive, down-to-earth 'question and answer" format, the topics addressed in this column talk about the many aspects of estate planning – and how to 'Keep the Family Farm in the Family'.   Contact Michael Baron at [email protected].