Dear Michael: We have been working on our estate plan for the past few months. We have a farming child, who is married, and we have three other children – all of whom are coming home for the holidays. Is this a good time to visit with our children about what we are thinking in our estate planning or will it ruin the holidays? – Don't Want to be Scrooge.
Dear Don't Want to be Scrooge: This can be a touchy, touchy subject as you well know.
If you are intent on having an open session regarding your estate planning, set down a few ground rules.
One, this is a meeting between you and your kids – period. This is something intensely personal and you might see some emotions that the rest of the in-laws and grandkids don't have to see – either from your children or from yourselves.
Make sure all of the in-laws and children and other distractions are somewhere where they won't be a constant interruption. You need to evoke feelings and emotions from your children and it doesn't help if there are children who keep interrupting the flow of the conversation. Set aside a room where it is quiet, where you can speak and the children can speak about what you all are thinking and want to express.
Make certain everyone understand there are no bad thoughts or feelings about your estate planning. You're not there to judge and neither are they. It's a time to express yourself, get whatever you or the children need off of your chest, and once everything is out in the open, then you can deal with the issues one by one.
Explain how important it is to you that the family farm continue into the future, the commitments your farming child has made to keeping the family farm whole, and how you see the future evolving – whether you're in it or not.
If you cannot get all the children together in one spot – away from the madding crowd – then see if you can individually talk to your children for at least one hour. Show them your estate plan, what you are thinking, and, again, tell them they can express themselves without fear of judgement by you.
Expect them to say things "Dad and Mom, this is your stuff – whatever you want to do with it is up to you.” Someday you'll be gone and then it becomes their stuff and you want to know they are on board with the overall plan as to how you want things to work in your estate post-death.
You might also expect things like "Dad and Mom, you've helped Jr. out on the farm for so many years, why does he get so much?"
Explain to them how Jr. has committed his life to farming, has helped you grow in your farm operation with his labor, his expertise, his help. Use examples of other farms in the neighborhood, which aren't there anymore because they didn't have a child willing to take on the farming business.
All of this requires time to talk to your children and to communicate with them. Some children will be silent, but maybe they are just digesting the information and need time to think about it. Some will be outspoken and against your plan, but it's better to get that out in the air now rather than after your deaths. You can deal with it today. If your children are coming one day and leaving the next, you don't have time to squeeze these meetings in. It's too rushed and too much going on.
Last but not least, if the in-laws want to be part of the discussion, unless they have a vested interest – such as the farming in-law has – then explain that you won't be sitting in when their parents have such a meeting with them! Sorry, but if you won't be invited to their meeting with their parents, then the same applies here.
For everyone, keep the spirit of Christmas in your heart. Give thanks for all that has been given to you over your lifetime, and especially thank God for the gifts of fortitude, unwavering commitment to your children and your farm, and for having courage to face what you did to make certain this family and this farm exists today. God's gifts are all within us, a part of us – not what we have acquired over our lifetime. Pass these gifts on to your children for they are your true gifts.
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].